What Works in Parole and Probation?

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By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.

Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Graduate-Johns Hopkins University.

What Works in Parole and Probation

First in a series of articles on parole and probation research and practice.

Subtitles

Is crime control or prevention the purpose of parole and probation?

Is being arrested for a new crime while on parole or probation less likely to result in prosecution?

Parole and probation research is like making sausage. Sometimes, it’s better not to look.

Overview

The study below by the Florida Department of Corrections and the Florida State University College of Criminology and Criminal Justice is an example as to why clear guidance as to parole and probation policy is so hard to come by. It was funded by the US Department of Justice.

We use the research as a springboard for a larger discussion on parole and probation. Many reporters, citizens or policymakers are surprised to discover that there is a lack of clarity as to any aspect as to what works in the criminal justice system. We don’t have a clear understanding as to what works as to crime control or law enforcement. Why would it be any different for parole and probation?

Yes, there are endless advocates, criminologists and “experts” who will tout advanced degrees and decades of criminal justice practice who will provide definitive answers as to “what works,” but for the vast majority, it’s merely opinion based on selectively picked, supportive research and their individual philosophical or political opinions. There are few hard facts when it comes to criminal justice policy or practice.

It’s important to understand that the vast majority of people caught up in the criminal justice system are on parole and probation, not in prison or jail. If we are going to “win” the war on crime, the principle focus has to be on this population, yet the majority of dollars for research and initiatives goes elsewhere. Some suggest that parole and probation is an inexpensive method for processing millions of criminal offenders and that cost efficiency is the primary focus of community supervision.

Research: The Study Below Indicates Reduced Recidivism

Findings indicate that inmates released to any form of post-prison supervision are approximately 11-20% less likely to be arrested for any crime (felony or misdemeanor, excluding technical violations of supervision) and 30-44% less likely to be convicted for a felony offense after release from incarceration.

Before You Begin Your Celebration, the Study also States

However, these positive findings are mitigated by the negative effects of supervision on arrest for a felony and return to prison. Those with any term of post-prison supervision are 7-20% more likely to be arrested for a felony and 67-360% more likely to be returned to prison after release from incarceration than those with no supervision to follow.

Questions

How can you be 7-20% more likely to be arrested for a felony and 30-44% less likely to be convicted of a felony offense?

How can you be 67-360% more likely to be returned to prison after being 11-20% less likely to be arrested for any crime?

Similar Data-Technical Violations (Returns to Prison)

Those studied were 67-360% more likely to be returned to prison. We  have seen similar research results as supervised offenders on parole and probation are returned to incarceration for technical violations on the premise that, “the more you watch them-the more you violate them.” There are few people on parole and probation supervision who meet all the requirements of supervision: drug positives, lack of employment, not completing community service or making restitution payments or missing meetings are common. We are often more surprised (or worried) by those in compliance than those not (i.e., sex offenders).

Note that some technical violations (i.e., drug positives, not reporting to a parole officer) can be substitutes for charged or alleged criminal activity (it’s easier to prove a technical violation than a crime). Why prosecute someone with the associated problems of cost or cooperative witnesses when charging the offender with technical violations is much easier? It’s somewhat similar to plea-bargaining as to being easier and quicker. We do one-why not do the other?

Note that this is our observation; we do not have data to offer a firm conclusion, but we are not the first to address this.

There are many in parole and probation who believe that being on supervision is the problem. If “the more we watch them-the more we violate them” construct is true, then being very selective as to who we put on parole and probation becomes a key factor. But that begs the question, “if not parole and probation, then what do we do with them?”

Similar Data-Prosecution Leniency 

As to convictions, the finding that 30-44% less likely to be convicted for a felony offense is probably due to the discretion of prosecutors on the basis that they are already under parole and probation supervision, thus there may be some inclination for leniency. There is still a sanction (supervision or revocation for technical violations) thus non-prosecution doesn’t mean complete freedom. 

We have seen this in other cities and states where being charged with a crime while under parole and probation supervision may work for the offender rather than against. Prosecutors also know that new charges could have a profound impact on the length of sentence, and if the crime was insignificant (i.e., drug use, loitering, drunk and disorderly) they may pass on bringing new charges.

For overwhelmed prosecutors, it’s a quick way to dispose of cases.

Again, this is our observation; we do not have data to offer a firm conclusion.

What Works in Parole and Probation?

For reporters, policymakers and the general public, the results of parole and probation research seem to create more confusion than clarity. Parole and probation research is like making sausage; sometimes, it’s better not to look. An example is revocations to prison for technical violations. Some (most?) governors have told their corrections chiefs to hold the line on their budgets, which means fewer people returning to prison for technical violations, which means taking more risks with people on supervision.

A key to understanding how the criminal justice system operates is that most agencies are overwhelmed (i.e., why we have plea-bargaining). Parole and probation “works” because it holds offenders to some degree of accountability. Crime control (whatever that means) seems to be secondary.

The consensus of many in parole and probation seems to be a reliance on programs to deal with individual needs (i.e., substance abuse, mental health, employment) backed by supervision, but the federal government and states simply will not provide the funds to implement interventions. These efforts have some success with small reductions in recidivism, commonly ten percent or less.

Others believe that swift and certain sanctions for bad behavior (Project Hope and GPS-satellite tracking supervision) are more effective; research states that these programs reduce crime, technical violations, and returns to prison. The research indicates better results than programs targeting individual needs.

The field is packed with people who want a kinder, gentler approach to help offenders overcome their personal difficulties. Whether that philosophy is best for the individuals involved or society in general is open to question. At this point, the questions remain unanswered with any sense of clarity.

But we can do both. We can provide the programs most offenders need and, at the same time, hold them accountable through swift and certain sanctions. The problem is that government and allies simply will not (cannot?) fund comprehensive programming for those on parole and probation.

The ratios of parole and probation agents to the offenders they supervise can be one for every 100-150 offenders (we’ve seen larger ratios). How can you provide the services or enforcement necessary when ratios are so large?

Parole and probation needs research and a laser focus as to what works. Parole and probation needs national standards and funding to accomplish them.

The Florida Study: Assessing the Impact of Post-Release Community Supervision on Post-Release Recidivism and Employment

The purpose of this study was to assess the various impacts that post-prison supervision has on recidivism and employment outcomes for inmates released from Florida prisons.

Additionally, we aimed to determine if the type of post-release supervision and/or the length of time spent on post-release supervision created differential impacts among offenders.

The first research question guiding this work examined whether post-release supervision impacted recidivism and post-prison employment outcomes for a cohort of released inmates.

Findings indicate that inmates released to any form of post-prison supervision are approximately 11-20% less likely to be arrested for any crime (felony or misdemeanor, excluding technical violations of supervision) and 30-44% less likely to be convicted for a felony offense after release from incarceration. Inmates placed on any type of post-prison supervision are also more likely to be employed within the first quarter after release from incarceration, compared to those released with no supervision to follow.

However, these positive findings are mitigated by the negative effects of supervision on arrest for a felony and return to prison. Those with any term of post-prison supervision are 7-20% more likely to be arrested for a felony and 67-360% more likely to be returned to prison after release from incarceration than those with no supervision to follow.

The significant increase in likelihood of reimprisonment is likely due, at least in part, to the nature of supervision: those who are supervised can be returned to prison for technical violations in addition to being returned as a result of a new sentence.

Our measure of reimprisonment includes all movements into the Florida prison system, and thus does not isolate those offenders who are returning to prison as a result of a violation of supervision. This is an important limitation in our study.

Policy Implications

Across the U.S., thousands of inmates are released from incarceration back into communities every day. How these individuals successfully transition back into their community from the correctional system has been studied by criminological research in a myriad of ways. While research focusing on the use of community corrections as a tool for offender reentry has largely focused on parole supervision, there remains a gap in the understanding of alternative post-prison release supervision strategies. Taken as a whole, this study finds generally positive effects of post-release supervision on reducing recidivism and increasing employment after release from prison, particularly for offenders placed on a term of split probation or split community control supervision.

The findings from this study drive two broad policy recommendations for researchers, practitioners, and policy makers.

First, findings indicate support for the use of post-prison supervision, specifically split probation and split community control supervision, as viable tools to reduce reoffending and increase employment for inmates returning to communities. Findings indicate strong, positive support for this association which is consistent across multiple statistical methods, further increasing the reliability of the results.

The results showing an increased likelihood of offender returning to prison is likely due to a conflation of returning to prison for technical violations with returning to prison for other reasons. We argue the increased likelihood of returning to prison for supervised offenders is not necessarily indicative of a failure of supervision. Instead, if offenders are instead being “pulled back” into the prison system via technical violations of supervision before they reoffend for more serious reasons (i.e., committing new felony offenses), then, in fact, supervision should be considered a success. By properly identifying and monitoring offenders who are at a greater risk for reoffending and enacting a swift and certain punishment (via return to prison) for less serious offenses, community corrections is able to reduce the likelihood that these offenders will return to serious criminal behaviors after release from incarceration.

Source: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/249844.pdf

Contact us at crimeinamerica@gmail.com. Media on deadline, use leonardsipes@gmail.com.


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Comments

  1. Project orange jumpsuit – 3 year longitudinal study of randomly selected Harris County misdemeanor & felony defendants’ attributes affecting pretrial status,misconduct,case outcome & recidivism.Bail Reform investigating billion dollar for profit bail bond industry driving courthouse culture discriminating against the poor denied grant support by Arnold foundation, MacArthur, National Pretrial Institute, NIJ etc etc
    Nonprofit themisresearch preliminary findings cited in Equal Justice Under Law Federal court class action suit on wealth-based detention.
    Gerald R. Wheeler Ph.D.

  2. Garrison Reekers says:

    I think the DISC behavioral profiles and 48 Days seminar are tools that could be used and beneficial for inmates entering back into the community.

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  1. […] See https://www.crimeinamerica.net/2016/08/29/what-works-in-parole-and-probation/ for our answers and observations. […]

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