New study will examine women with opioid-use disorder in criminal justice system

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A new five-year, $842,000 grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) will allow Penn State researchers to examine opioid-use disorder among criminal justice-involved (CJI) women.  

Abenaa Jones, assistant professor of human development and family studies and Consortium to Combat Substance Abuse (CCSA) co-funded faculty member, is the principal investigator on the project. Jones’ will be mentored by a team of senior investigators, including Carl Latkin, professor of health, behavior, and society at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; and Derek Kreager, director of Penn State’s Criminal Justice Research Center (CJRC) and Social Science Research Institute co-funded faculty member.

The project aims to link CJI women in medication-assisted treatment (MAT) programs and other services while also developing an intervention. Women are among the fastest-growing population of incarcerated individuals, and the arrest rate for drug possession or use for women tripled between 1980 and 2009, according to a report from the Vera Institute of Justice. However, much of the current criminal justice behavioral and drug interventions are male-focused, which shows a significant gap in effective strategies to reduce opioid-use disorder among CJI women.  

“There is a shortage of effective interventions that link CJI women to needed drug use treatment such as MAT programs,” notes Jones. “Consequently, continued substance use, recidivism in the criminal justice system, and other adverse outcomes are prevalent among these women. This research is critical because of not only improving the health and social outcomes for these women, but to also reduce the societal costs of incarceration and substance use dependence.”  

The study collaborates with CJI woman, MAT providers, and criminal justice professionals to identify the barriers to opioid-use cessation, HIV-related risk behaviors, and exposure to violence among CJI women. Then investigators will develop a gender-specific and trauma-informed intervention that links and retains CJI women with opioid-use disorder to MAT programs, necessary social services, and provide opioid overdose response training.  

Jones hopes the study will develop more evidence-based interventions to reduce substance use and its co-occurring health and social consequences among marginalized and vulnerable communities.  

“Drug-dependent and criminal justice-involved women have unique needs compared to the equivalent population of men,” Jones says. “When these women are released into their communities without the tools and services to maneuver substance use, overlapping criminal justice obligations such as parole, poverty-related issues, and the adverse effects of unaddressed trauma, optimal health and social outcomes reduce and we contribute further to the rising societal costs of incarceration and drug dependence. It’s critical that we continue to develop interventions that help a high-risk and under-resourced population.” 

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Abenaa Jones