How can rewards and sanctions be used effectively with drug-involved offenders in treatment?

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS (FAQS) About Drug Abuse Treatment for People Involved with the Criminal Justice System

Reprinted from “Principles of Drug Abuse Treatment for Criminal Justice Populations” by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (in the Public Domain) by Thomas A. Wilson, MA, LCPC & CEO of Tom Wilson Counseling and Telehealth Center

9. How can rewards and sanctions be used effectively with drug-involved offenders in treatment?

The systematic application of behavioral management principles underlying reward and punishment can help individuals reduce their drug use and criminal behavior. Rewards and sanctions are most likely to change behavior when they are certain to follow the targeted behavior, when they follow swiftly, and when they are perceived as fair. It is important to recognize and reinforce progress toward responsible, abstinent behavior.

Rewarding positive behavior is more effective in producing long-term positive change than punishing negative behavior. Indeed, punishment alone is an ineffective public health and safety intervention for offenders whose crime is directly related to drug use (Leukefeld et al. 2002). Non-monetary rewards such as social recognition can be as effective as monetary ones. A graduated range of rewards given for meeting predetermined goals can be an effective strategy.

Contingency management strategies, proven effective in community settings, use voucher-based incentives or rewards, such as bus tokens, to reinforce abstinence (measured by negative drug tests) or to shape progress toward other treatment goals, such as program session attendance or compliance with medication regimens. Contingency management is most effective when the contingent reward closely follows the behavior being monitored.

An intervention tested by CJ-DATS researchers, called “Step’n Out,” used a contingency management approach whereby criminal justice staff monitored specific behaviors (e.g., abstinence, employment searches, and counseling attendance) and rewarded individuals who met agreed-upon goals with social acknowledgement (e.g., congratulatory letter from parole supervisor) and small material incentives (e.g., partial payment for clothes for job interviews). This approach improved parolees’ attendance at integrated community parole and addiction treatment sessions, as well as increased use of treatment and individual counseling services (Friedmann et al. 2009).

Graduated sanctions, which invoke less punitive responses for early and less serious noncompliance and increasingly severe sanctions for more serious or continuing problems, can be an effective tool in conjunction with drug testing. The effective use of graduated sanctions involves consistent, predictable, and clear responses to noncompliant behavior.

Drug testing can determine when an individual is having difficulties with recovery. The first response to drug use detected through urinalysis should be a clinical one—for example, increasing treatment intensity or switching to an alternative treatment. This often requires coordination between the criminal justice staff and the treatment provider. (Note that more intensive treatment should not be considered a sanction, but rather a routine progression in health care practice when a treatment appears less effective than expected.)

Behavioral contracting can employ both rewards and sanctions. A behavioral contract is an explicit agreement between the participant and the treatment provider or criminal justice monitor (or among all three) that specifies proscribed behaviors and associated sanctions, as well as positive goals and rewards for success. Behavioral contracting can instill a sense of procedural justice because both the necessary steps toward progress and the sanctions for violating the contract are specified and understood in advance.