By Alan Burns
From its beginning in 1972, the Mississippi Alcohol Safety Education Program (MASEP) has strived to improve the safety of Mississippi’s citizens and highways. The program is Mississippi’s statewide driver improvement program that is required for first-time offenders convicted of driving under the influence.
MASEP is currently in its 45th year serving as the one of the few state-wide programs operationally in the country. The original MASEP curriculum was created in 1972 with funding from the Governor’s Highway Safety Program, the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol, and the Mississippi Department of Health. Originally, the curriculum was presented as a lecture series, focusing on alcohol’s effects and knowledge to prevent drinking and driving.
A study conducted by the Social Science Research Center (SSRC) at Mississippi State University (MSU) from 1975-1981 found that the program was having no significant impact on recidivism rates of offenders, which led to the creation of the 1989 edition of the MASEP curriculum. This new curriculum was created with a focus on research and theory for DUI offender rehabilitation, switching permanently from a lecture program to a group intervention approach program.
While court-mandated since the Implied Consent Law of 1981, the MASEP program was still optional until 2007. Offenders could suffer a 1-year suspension of their driver’s license before having it reinstated, while not being required to participate in the class. This changed in 2007, when the state began requiring the program for offenders to have their license reinstated.
Over the course of the following 28 years, the curriculum has been heavily revised multiple times with small revisions done periodically. This year has seen the launch of the curriculum’s sixth edition.
“We’ve always wanted to keep up with the literature,” says Dr. Angela Robertson, Research Coordinator for the Research and Development (R&D) Unit of MASEP. “What is the science behind intervening with offenders, what are the latest trends? These questions are important to have an effective curriculum.”
Robertson explains that each revision of the curriculum focuses on current trends in substance abuse and the latest research on alcohol, drugs, and health. The newest set of updates to the curriculum applies the new trends of rising opioid use and a shift in the program’s attendees.
“Opioid use is on the rise. We did the research, as well as looked at what other studies have found, and decided we needed to include opioids in the curriculum along with alcohol, marijuana, and other prescriptions that people may have in their homes,” says Robertson.
“We’ve also been seeing a trend in the number of females that are attending the program,” she continues. “Historically, males have been the more common perpetrator of DUIs, but that gender gap is narrowing. It’s narrowing slowly, but we’re definitely seeing more female offenders.”
Along with the changing trends, the program seeks feedback from an advisory board comprised of facilitators. These facilitators work in the field with offenders at the court-mandated classes.
“It’s important that the people who are actually delivering the intervention have direct input into the program. They are in the field, they see what works and helps people the most,” Robertson says.
Billy Brister, Assistant Director for MASEP Operations, serves in his role as a representation for the operations side of the project, acting as a liaison for the facilitators.
“We’re where the rubber meets the road, so to speak,” Brister explains. “We did a survey of the facilitators in 2016 and 2017 to figure out what they thought should be
modified in the curriculum. We can then present that to the R&D Unit and they can better prepare a curriculum based on what those in the field are experiencing.”
Robertson’s research shows that around 23% of those in the program have less than a high school education level, while around 33% have a high school education and 38% have a college level education.
“It becomes important to adjust the curriculum to present the information in the most accessible manner possible, making sure that the lessons are not above any specific comprehension level,” says Robertson.
Based on this research and facilitator input, the design for the last few editions, including the newest one, are very image heavy. The image and graphic heavy design allows MASEP to spread the messages as effectively as possible among all audiences.
“We look at the literature and know what works, but then we have to figure out the best way to convey that to the general public,” Robertson says. “For example, we have an area focused on the Stages of Change that we believed we had in a great spot, but the facilitators came back to us with critiques that helped us create a more visually engaging and effective look for that section.”
The program also has a focus on applying behavioral change. Over the course of the four sessions of the program, two of them focus on bringing personal, individualized feedback to the offenders. In the first session, each attendee fills out an assessment on their personal life and abuse of substances. In the third session, this information is used to present each person with feedback that shows them their probabilities of being rearrested for DUI and how they can change their habits.
Robertson explains that MASEP is not a treatment program, but an intervention program. They follow a type of behavioral change known as SBIRT: screening, brief intervention, and referral to treatment. This style of program is similar to kinds used by physicians. Evidence shows this has the potential to influence behavior change and Robertson hopes it can motivate individuals to make better choices.
The MASEP program is registered in the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP). NREPP is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) online database of over 300 programs that are based on research and evidence.
“We’re taking the research and applying it to our state’s population,” she says. “We do all of this research and make changes to the program to ensure that we have a reputable, fact-based program.”
Brister sees the future of the program as bright, noting that it has had a positive impact on the state and can continue to do so.
“MASEP has been proven to reduce recidivism,” he says. “Between the R&D Unit and the Operations staff, we do a great job and provide a great program for the state of Mississippi.”
Visit masep.org for more information on the Mississippi Alcohol Safety Education Program’s history, research, and publications.