Rapid Referral Program for at-risk youths proving effective, according to three-year study

Spectrum Youth and Family Services associate executive director Annie Ramniceanu discusses Spectrum’s Rapid Referral Program for at-risk youths with Vermont legislators Wednesday in Burlington.

Two numbers stand out in a new study on recidivism rates among at-risk youth — 18.7 and 84.

Young people who receive alcohol and drug abuse counseling at Spectrum Youth and Family Services have an 18.7 percent risk of committing crimes, while 84 percent of teens in the control group who didn’t participate in the program engaged in criminal behavior.

Annie Ramniceanu, associate executive director at Spectrum, says the success of the program hinges on timing — the Rapid Referral Program is working to reduce the wait time for access to screening from an average of five days to zero days. The rate of no-shows — youth that are directed by the court to Spectrum but fail to show up — has been 5 percent, which, according to Ramniceanu, is “unheard of.” Prior to the program, the average was 33 percent.

Spectrum’s Rapid Referral Program relies on an arrangement with the Chittenden County District Court that allows judges to refer young defendants to Spectrum for substance and drug abuse screening at their pre-trial arraignment. If Spectrum determines that treatment is an appropriate course for the defendant, the program becomes one component of their pre-trial conditions of release.

The study, carried out by the Vermont Center for Justice Research, compared recidivism rates over a three-year period between 171 participants in Spectrum’s program and a control group of 394 youth with similar criminal profiles.

T.J. Donovan, Chittenden County state’s attorney, said the study could help persuade judges and law enforcement to take part in similar programs across the state. Donovan created the Chittenden County Rapid Intervention Community Court, a court diversion program that allows law enforcement officers to recommend alternatives to criminal charges for people who would otherwise be charged with minor offenses.

“I think state’s attorneys and a lot of judges and people in law enforcement are naturally disinclined to do this because they don’t think it works,” Donovan said. “And this study demonstrated that it does work.”

Ramniceanu calls the finding “pretty astounding,” and says she “can’t think of anything” that would prevent replication of the program across the state.

Whether the program actually will be replicated, she says, is ultimately “a policy decision.” As it turns out, there were plenty of policy makers in attendance, as the press conference blended into an impromptu policy hearing with legislative candidates, Gov. Peter Shumlin, the secretary of the Agency of Human Services Doug Racine, Andy Pallito, the commissioner of the Department of Corrections, and Attorney General Bill Sorrell.

Shumlin said the program has the potential to reduce corrections costs by siphoning off at-risk youth early on in the criminal justice process.

“Every time we lose the battle with a nonviolent offender who is addicted, it costs Vermonters $54,000 a year,” said Shumlin.

The study did not examine cost savings from the program.

Funding for the Rapid Referral Program comes primarily from the participants’ insurance — 60 percent of the budget is covered by state Medicaid and 30 percent by individuals’ private insurance. A federal grant from Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs (ADAP) covers the remaining 10 percent, for young people who don’t have insurance.

Alicia Freese

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  • Michael Livingston

    Excellent article Alicia – our state is very much in need of this kind of program. Thanks for highlighting their success.

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