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What We Don't Know About Parole and Probation

As we move away from mass incarceration, we need to figure out how visits by case officers are effective -- or aren't.

Officer Andrew Skidmore meets with Aaron, a 24-year-old who has been under supervision for more than two years.
(Photos by Leah Nash)
Visits to parolees and probationers by their case officers have been part of the fabric of the justice system for more than a century. The logic and assumptions have seemed clear: Visits maintain public safety and promote rehabilitation. It's important to see if clients comply with supervision requirements and if their living conditions will help keep them out of trouble. The unproductive hours parole officers spend driving to see rural clients, the stress and safety risks for officers, and the disruption to clients who have to take time off from work to meet a probation officer -- well, all that's worth it, right?

The truth is, we don't really know. There has been precious little research and thus hardly any evidence to show that visits work or which visit components succeed, fail or, even worse, are counterproductive. Are unscheduled or scheduled visits better? Should the visits be at home or in the workplace? As bipartisan prison reform efforts reduce mass incarceration and funnel more people into supervised release, already-large caseloads could explode. It is both critical and urgent to get answers to these questions.

A recent study we did for the National Institute of Justice was one of the first efforts to look at home visits, quantitatively and qualitatively, to gauge their effectiveness. The evaluation included data analysis, reviews of officer-visit checklists, interviews, and focus-group discussions. The results are promising but quite preliminary. And they raise as many questions as they answer. That's partly because the interaction between the officer and the client is a key factor in the value of a visit, and that interaction is hard to observe and evaluate. Aggravating matters, there's no consensus definition of a field contact and what it entails. And results varied widely among jurisdictions. Was that because of the different contexts, different practices or a combination of the two?

To try to pierce through this fog, we partnered with the American Probation and Parole Association and community supervision authorities in Ohio and Minnesota. We also sent an online survey to corrections departments in all 50 states. The good news is that, overall, field visits did seem to reduce recidivism. In Ohio, individuals who received at least one field contact had a 47 percent reduction in the odds of returning to prison within two years and a 54 percent reduction in the odds of ever returning.

But we still don't know why. Compliance due to deterrence? Rehabilitation because of referral to services? Catching violations that endanger the community? The answers to these questions could help determine new policies and initiatives. Other findings from our research were contradictory, raising new questions to explore:

• In Ohio, 54 percent of attempts to make contact were successful, while the figure in Minnesota was 64.8 percent. Why the difference? How many contacts are needed? Is there a law of diminishing returns after some number of contacts?

• In Ohio, 15 percent of attempts yielded "collateral" contact -- with friends and family, not the client. Officers found such meetings productive because they could build rapport with the family and neighbors and get a fuller picture of how the clients were faring. Yet regular contact with family members correlated with increased recidivism. Is this seemingly good practice backfiring, or are family members and neighbors sharing information about a client's new criminal activity with officers?

• Officers prefer field contacts at the home so they can understand the client's environment. But they also like visits at places of employment. That ensures compliance with work requirements and avoids forcing a client to take time off from work. So which is better? Is the cost of missing work or the chance to take a child to school or day care worth the benefit of seeing the home environment?

• In Ohio, unscheduled and scheduled visits were equally effective, while in Minnesota unscheduled visits led to significant reductions in recidivism.

• In Ohio, evidence-based practices such as motivational interviewing during field contacts were important in reducing recidivism, but they had no impact in Minnesota.

Beyond these issues, we need to address probation and parole in a larger context. As the nation shifts away from mass incarceration, we need more rigorous research about what works to help probationers and parolees while protecting the public. We now know some of the questions. We need to move quickly to get some answers.

A principal associate in Abt Associates' Division of Health and Environment
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