Substance Use and Mental Health Program

jh connect logo

Vera’s Substance Use and Mental Health Program (SUMH) conducts applied research to help public officials and community organizations develop empirically driven responses to the substance use and mental health needs of people involved in justice systems. SUMH staff collect and analyze quantitative and qualitative data and evaluate existing programs to understand the experiences of those affected by psychiatric disorders or substance use and policies that prolong their involvement in the justice system.

The program’s work includes:

  • Using information-sharing to improve service provision
    Many people in contact with the criminal justice system have mental health and substance use problems. Yet health and justice systems rarely share information with each other to improve awareness of clients’ needs or to enhance the services they provide. SUMH integrates data from mental health, substance use, and criminal justice agencies to help jurisdictions better identify and serve people with behavioral health problems.
  • Measuring the impact of drug policy
    States are increasingly reconsidering ways to respond to non-violent drug offenses and policymakers have a pressing need for empirical evidence that can help inform their decisions. SUMH conducts research on the impact of drug policy, such as the use of treatment-based alternatives to incarceration in lieu of lengthy prison sentences.
  • Informing jail reentry planning
    Many people leaving jail face a range of problems, from accessing mental health treatment to securing a place to live. Evidence shows that access to appropriate services can improve individual health outcomes and reduce the likelihood of future arrests. SUMH is working with jail administrators and communities in New York City and Los Angeles to design more accessible and effective reentry services.
  • Informing culturally conscious behavioral health services
    While individuals involved with criminal justice systems are diverse in many ways, agencies tend to use a one-size-fits-all approach to providing substance use and mental health interventions. As a result, many people may find these services to be inaccessible or poorly suited to their specific needs. SUMH is conducting research to inform culturally conscious service models for criminal justice settings.

Why this Work Matters 
There are three times as many people with serious mental illness in jails and prisons than in hospitals, and about two-thirds of people in prison report regular drug use. However, justice systems around the country are ill equipped to provide behavioral health services, and individuals often fail to get the help they need. SUMH research helps jurisdictions design policies that increase access to treatment, reduce reliance on the criminal justice system as a response to these problems, and improve public safety. 

For more information, contact program director Jim Parsons.


A Natural Experiment in Reform: Analyzing drug policy change in New York

The Substance Use and Mental Health Program (SUMH) is studying the impact of recent changes to New York State drug laws that allow shorter sentences and alternatives to incarceration for certain felony drug charges. The reform is a shift from mandatory sentencing guidelines limiting judicial discretion that came into effect in 1973 during the tenure of then-governor Nelson A. Rockefeller and were popularly known as the Rockefeller drug laws. The study will describe the reform’s implementation and explore its implications for public safety and criminal-justice-system costs.

Comprehensive Transition Planning Project

The Comprehensive Transition Planning Project (CTPP) applies research and technical assistance to understand the needs of people held at New York City’s main jail facility, Rikers Island, and the extent to which existing reentry services meet those needs. Its goal is to improve services designed to help incarcerated people return to the community more successfully. CTPP is a partnership of Vera’s Program on Substance Use and Mental Health and the New York City Department of Correction.

Correctional Health Care Spending Trends

The State Health Care Spending Project, an initiative launched by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, enlisted Vera’s Cost-Benefit Analysis Unit to research state spending on inmate medical care over time and factors driving costs up or down.

DC Forensic Health Project

The DC Forensic Health Project (DCFHP) uses data from several Washington, DC agencies to gauge rates of mental health problems among people arrested in the District and to assess the services they receive. Its aim is to provide government and community-based organizations with the information they need to improve the effectiveness and reach of mental health services.

Impact Evaluation of the Adolescent Behavioral Learning Experience Program at Rikers Island

In 2012, the New York City Mayor’s Office launched the nation’s first social impact bond—an innovative return-for-success initiative in which private funding is used to finance public services—to fund the Adolescent Behavioral Learning Experience (ABLE) program, which provides Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT) services to adolescents at Rikers Island. Under this model, the funder—the global investment banking, securities, and investment management firm Goldman Sachs—will receive a return on its investment if the number of recidivism bed days—the number of days that people are held in jail custody following their initial release—are reduced by at least 10 percent.

Justice and Health Connect Initiative

Vera’s Substance Use and Mental Health Program launched the Justice and Health Connect (JH Connect) initiative in 2011 with support from the Bureau of Justice Assistance. JH Connect aims to increase agencies’ capacities to share data across behavioral health and justice systems in confidential, legal, and ethical ways to better serve people with behavioral health needs who come into contact with justice systems.

Los Angeles Jail to Community Reentry Project

The Los Angeles Jail to Community Reentry Project seeks to inform improvements to reentry services for people returning to the community. This project expands upon the Substance Use and Mental Health Program's work on jail reentry in New York City using empirical data to assess the existing range of reentry interventions, with a particular focus on meeting the needs of L.A.’s racially and ethnically diverse jail population.

The Role of Indigent Defense for Defendants with Mental Health Disorders

Vera’s Substance Use and Mental Health Program launched a project to study the role of indigent defense, commonly known as public defense, for defendants with mental health disorders (MHD) in January 2013. With support from the National Institute of Justice, this work aims to 1) enhance understanding of the challenges faced by indigent defenders and their clients with MHD; 2) improve outcomes for defendants with MHD; and 3) inform the development of guidelines and training materials for defense attorneys that address common challenges to providing indigent defense for people with MHD. 

Justice and Health Connect Website
People involved in the criminal justice system have significantly higher rates of behavioral and physical health problems than the general population. The rate of serious mental illness among incarcerated persons is estimated to be more than three times higher than in the general population. A...
Youth, Safety, and Violence: Schools, Communities, and Mental Health
This policy brief contributes to the urgent national conversation about violence against children, and provides three perspectives from Vera experts on school safety, mental illness, and the delivery of mental health services. The perspectives draw on Vera’s work with government partners in each of...
Treatment Alternatives to Incarceration for People with Mental Health Needs in the Criminal Justice System: The Cost-Savings Implications
The disproportionate number of people with behavioral health disorders involved in the criminal justice system puts a tremendous strain on scarce public resources and has a huge impact on health care and criminal justice budgets. This research summary demonstrates that with appropriate treatment...
Making the Transition: Rethinking Jail Reentry in Los Angeles County
Jail and prison reentry services are designed to help people who are released into the community and are associated with lower rates of repeat criminal activity and reincarceration as well as improved public safety. However, providing reentry programs in corrections settings is challenging—...
Posted by
  • Staff profile


In response to an explosion in overdose deaths due to opioids, such as heroin or prescription opioids such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, and in recognition of the immediate, life-saving role police officers can play when a person is at risk of...
Posted by
  • Staff profile


The surge of opiate-related overdoses in the United States is a pressing public health issue. An underrepresented aspect of this epidemic is the disproportionately high risk of death that people reentering the community from jail or prison...
Posted by
In 2012, the number of patients with severe mental illness in prisons and jails was ten times the number in state psychiatric hospitals. Earlier this week, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights...
Posted by
An upturn in violence at New York City’s Rikers Island Jail has been the focus of recent media attention, most notably in the February death of veteran Jerome Murdough in an overheated cell and the arrest of a correction officer charged in the...
Posted by
  • Staff profile


New York City is not immune to the nationwide epidemic of opioid prescription drug abuse, addiction, and overdose deaths. From 2000 to 2012, overdose deaths involving prescription opioids increased 222 percent citywide, and 10 percent of students in...
Jim Parsons
Vice President and Research Director
David Cloud
Senior Program Associate, Substance Use and Mental Health Program
Chelsea Davis
Research Analyst, Substance Use and Mental Health Unit and Special Assistant to the Vice President and Research Director
Ayesha Delany-Brumsey
Research Associate, Substance Use and Mental Health Program
Qing Wei
Research Associate, Substance Use and Mental Health