What is a Counselor’s Role in Crime Prevention?

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The idea of mental health experts and law enforcement working hand in hand to prevent crime before it occurs is fairly new. Therapist are legally required to report abuse of elderly and children, and if a client indicates serious intentions to harm themselves or others. However, “The more you can talk to a therapist about the more likely you will be helped to change your behavior,” says licensed Marriage and Family Therapist David Joel Miller when answering the question Do Therapists Have to Report a Crime? “…past crimes usually do not get reported, future and ongoing crimes like abuse or a plan to kill probably will be reported.”1

In light of recent mass shootings, many schools and communities have organized specialized task forces to monitor individuals perceived to be a risk to themselves or others. This starts with threat assessment, essentially a three-part process: identifying, evaluating, and intervening.

A case usually begins with a gut feeling that something is off. An individual overhears a person’s dark comments and alerts someone in authority. If the tip makes its way to a local threat assessment team, the group analyzes the subject’s background and circumstances, for example their ability to access weapons. The team draws on the mental health expertise of counselors and experts in security. Possible responses range from arrest if violence seems imminent to providing longer-term counseling.

The mental health professionals who work with law enforcement come from a number of disciplines in the counseling field.

School Counselors

From bullying to more serious incidents, school counselors are often seen as a valuable resource because of the direct contact they have with students, and their role as a trusted adult..

The demand for school counselors is rising as school districts see the need to lower student to counselor ratios. In schools counselors are resources for “prevention, intervention, and crisis response,” says an article on School Counselors and School Violence prepared by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.2 They emphasize that counselors should be on the front lines of a comprehensive approach to school violence, meaning “approaching school violence in terms of preventing undesirable incidents from occurring, intervening when the likelihood of such incidents is evidenced, and responding when such incidents happen.”

Community Counselors

Schools are not the only places that face violent incidents, and specialized task forces like the one created in Portland, Oregon in 2000 following the Columbine school shooting utilize counselors from the community as part of their strategy.3

The task force uses different strategies when dealing with potential threats, from a “wraparound intervention” including counseling, in-home tutoring, and help pursuing personal interests to conducting a “knock and talk” interview, which lets the person know authorities are watching, and is often enough of a deterrent itself.

Counselors in these situations act as consultants and interact with individuals directly, working to direct them to more positive outcomes.

Corrections Counselors

One way counselors can prevent crime is working in the corrections field. Once an offender has been convicted and incarcerated, they are often ordered to undergo counseling while in prison or jail. Through direct interaction with inmates, corrections counselors help prevent recidivism and discourage an offender from escalating from petty crimes to more serious offenses.

Since clients are often involuntary, this type of counseling can be challenging. These counselors can work in a number of roles like juvenile probation counselors, prison social workers, case workers, and classification counselors. Encouraging clients toward more positive outlets and away from patterns of repetitive crimes and substance abuse makes these positions vital to the prevention of future crimes.

Working in schools, the community, or corrections institutions, counselors play a vital role in crime prevention. Whether acting as a part of a threat assessment team or working to with inmates or parolees to prevent recidivism and criminal escalation, a counselor will find a great deal of satisfaction in knowing they have made a difference in their community. A Master’s in Counseling from Wake Forest University enables students to enter the exciting world of school, community, or corrections counseling.