Intensive Probation and Parole Research Paper

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Intensive supervision probation or parole (ISP) is a supervision approach that has emerged to deal with serious offenders in the community. ISP involves increasing the frequency of contact between probation officers and clients, placing offenders in small caseloads so that probation officers have more time to spend with their clients, and more recently a focus on identifying individual risk and need levels and directing probationers to appropriate services and treatment. ISP in the United States, and to a lesser extent in the United Kingdom, became popular as an intermediate sanction to provide a noncustodial alternative to dealing with high-risk offenders and has therefore traditionally focused on surveillance and control of offenders rather than treatment and service delivery. A substantial body of rigorous research studies has suggested that this approach may be ineffective and even harmful if used with lower-risk offenders. However, programs that emphasize a combination of surveillance and carefully-matched treatment, focused deterrence, and behavioral management approaches have shown more promise. ISP may also have suffered because it is difficult to devote sufficient attention to high risk and need offenders in understaffed and under-resourced probation agencies. Thus, ISP as an area of study and practice is currently in flux, but a number of promising future directions may prevent the approach from being discredited as a failed program. Note that in this research paper, the terms “probation” and “parole” interchangeably mean a period of supervision or license in the community imposed post-release from prison or as a community-based sentence in its own right. In practice, there is often little difference in supervision practices for these two populations.

Fundamentals And Historical Development Of Intensive Probation

In its most basic form, intensive supervision probation or parole (hereafter ISP) involves “tightening up” the supervision of convicted offenders on probation or supervised release from prison by reducing caseloads. This is usually achieved in one or both of two ways: reducing the size of probation officers’ caseloads so that they can spend more time focused on each client and/or enhancing reporting requirements such as the frequency and duration of contacts or increased drug testing requirements. Electronic monitoring, in the form of transmitting devices that notify authorities when an offender breaks a curfew or leaves a specified area or voice-assisted check-in devices, is also frequently added to ISP schemes. The belief behind most intensive probation programs is that if the most serious offenders are to be released back into the community, the more supervision and control they are subjected to, the better.

ISP programs developed over the past 50 years reflect theoretical notions of specific deterrence, surveillance and formal social control, and to a lesser extent informal social control. Offenders are offered the opportunity to remain in the community on the understanding that they are being constantly monitored, and the consequence of failure is the loss of liberty. While the formal social control and deterrence elements of ISP are most often discussed, ISP – as an alternative to incarceration – can also promote informal social control by allowing offenders to remain in the community. This can minimize the disruption of positive social networks and opportunities, such as access to prosocial role models within an offender’s family and community, and conventional activities and treatment.

Indeed, the earliest ISP-like programs, which emerged in the United States in the 1960s, focused heavily on the idea of treatment and rehabilitation. They were guided by the belief that smaller caseloads allowed probation officers more time to help their clients improve their lives (Petersilia and Turner 1990). However, a series of field studies of these programs showed that these initiatives made very little impact on recidivism and in some cases even increased probation failure and technical violation rates. A potential explanation for the lack of effectiveness of these initiatives was that no attention was given in their development to how probation supervision activities best served the rehabilitative goal. Although probation officers had extra time to spend with clients, they did not know how to use that time to improve their clients’ outcomes. Experimental testing of the programs focused almost exclusively on identifying the optimal client to probation officer ratio rather than supervision content (Clear and Hardyman 1990).

Although ISP does have some roots in traditional criminological theories, in its best-known form, it was primarily intended as a practical solution to a crisis in US corrections and a punitive alternative to imprisonment, rather than a program developed in accordance with theories of offending and behavior or a desire to better understand effective supervision practices. The lack of success of early ISP programs meant that they had fallen out of favor by the 1970s. At the same time, the rehabilitative ideal gave way to a retributive philosophy across the entire criminal justice arena in the United States and beyond, driven by a sharp rise in crime and the popular belief that “nothing worked” to reduce recidivism.

In the United States, this convergence of factors triggered an exponential increase in the incarcerated population and the cost of corrections in general. This put substantial pressure on probation services. The probation population was growing in its own right, with an increasing number of serious and high-need offenders being granted parole or sentenced to probation outright. Probation officers’ caseloads were becoming unmanageably large (Petersilia and Turner 1993).

Thus, by the 1980s, ISP had begun to make a comeback as a key strategy among other intermediate sanctions (alternatives to imprisonment) that sought to alleviate prison overcrowding and save money. At the same time, intermediate sanctions needed to maintain the appearance of being tough on offenders who would otherwise have been incarcerated and deter future offending through swift, certain punishment effected by close supervision (Petersilia and Turner 1990). Probation supervision in general has long suffered from image problems, particularly a public perception that it is a “soft” approach to dealing with serious offenders who are highly likely to recidivate. In the United States, for example, it is estimated that over 40 % of probationers and more than half of parolees do not successfully complete a term of supervision and that parole violators account for nearly 35 % of admissions to state prisons (Solomon et al. 2008). The new style of ISP was thus much more geared toward reducing strain on the criminal justice system and reassuring the public that serious offenders were not simply “getting away with it” by being released on probation (Petersilia and Turner 1993).

The “Georgia Model” And Experimental Research On ISP

The new generation of ISP programs that emerged in the 1980s thus focused on surveillance and control of offenders through small caseloads, frequent contacts, increased drug testing, and mandatory employment. Georgia was the first US state to implement a program that followed this model, with positive results. Participants in the ISP program had very low recidivism rates, maintained their employment, and paid probation fees that helped offset the cost of their supervision. As a result, the “Georgia model” was adopted elsewhere, with more mixed results. The interest in developing intermediate sanctions, coupled with uncertainty about the effectiveness of ISP, led the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) of the United States Department of Justice to fund a multisite randomized controlled trial, conducted by the RAND Corporation (Petersilia and Turner 1993). The experiment remains one of the largest randomized controlled trials in criminal justice.

The BJA/RAND experiment was implemented in 14 locations. In 12 sites, ISP was compared to routine probation or parole supervision, which usually involves a brief meeting between the probation officers and client once a month, or existing intensive probation caseloads that were not as intense as the Georgia model. In an additional two sites, ISP was compared to incarceration. The exact nature of the program depended on the study site – each jurisdiction chose which components of the Georgia model to implement. However, there were a number of common features across all the evaluations. All included reducing probation officers’ caseloads to around 25–30 clients per officer, usually compared to 100 or more in regular supervision caseloads. The frequency of contact was increased from a general standard of about once per month to at least once a week at first, with the frequency gradually decreasing in phases. All the programs also included drug testing and mandated employment.

Participants in the ISP experiments had to be adults. They were generally high-risk offenders, since the primary goal of the Georgia model ISP was to offer a punitive alternative to incarceration for offenders deemed too serious to be supervised in regular caseloads. However, offenders convicted of homicide, robbery, or sexual offenses were excluded from the experiment. Most participants were males in their late twenties and early thirties with extensive criminal histories, and a substantial proportion were drug dependent. Beyond these initial requirements, the study sites set their own additional eligibility criteria for their programs.

The methodology of the experiment involved random assignment to treatment and control conditions. Several waves of data collection followed, including a baseline assessment of demographic characteristics and criminal history, recording of supervision details and services received at 6–12 months, recording of recidivism at 12 months, and monthly drug test data. The researchers also collected data on cost-effectiveness and time at risk. Recidivism was based on official records of technical violations, arrests, convictions, and incarceration.

As with the ISP programs of the 1960s, the results of the BJA/RAND evaluations were disappointing. In general ISP did nothing to reduce recidivism, and because of the increased scrutiny to which probation clients were subjected, the rate of technical violations increased compared to standard practice. A program that had been intended to reduce the strain on the prison system actually resulted in more incarceration, as the greater level of surveillance and drug testing increased the likelihood of probation failure (Petersilia and Turner 1993). The rigorous research design used by the RAND team may have revealed limitations that were not uncovered by earlier evaluations: Petersilia and Turner (1993) note that comparison group participants in some of the more successful program evaluations of the early and mid-1980s were not well matched to probationers who experienced ISP.

Beyond Georgia: Intensive Probation In The 1990s And 2000s

Around the same time as the research evidence against ISP was growing, the “what works” movement was also gaining momentum. Researchers and practitioners began to move away from the idea that nothing worked and to acknowledge the limitations of existing evidence and program design. This led to a renewed interest in the factors that influence successful programming and outcomes. An early turning point in the “what works” movement was the development of the “principles of effective intervention” or PEI (Andrews et al. 1990) – the idea that correctional programs and treatment should be designed to be responsive to offenders’ risk and need levels (also known as “risk-needresponsivity” or RNR). The “risk principle” element of the PEI, which has been empirically validated (Lowenkamp et al. 2006), suggests that the most treatment should be targeted only at the highest-risk individuals.

In probation research, the PEI have helped to refine supervision practices and better understand the factors that influence successful outcomes. Although participants in the BJA/RAND experiments were generally deemed to be high risk according to a range of characteristics including age at first conviction, offending history, current offense, and drug treatment needs, there was some variability across evaluation sites in the average risk level of participants, since sites generally set their own eligibility criteria (Petersilia and Turner 1993). Risk/needs assessment and treatment provision were not priorities of the experimental programs. Despite the increased contact with and control of their clients, probation officers did not in general focus on using that time to establish their clients’ risk and need levels using validated instruments and direct them to appropriate treatment (Latessa et al. 1998). However, the RAND evaluators noted a positive interaction between treatment provision, where it did occur, intensive supervision, and reduced recidivism and called for more research into effective treatment as part of probation supervision (Petersilia and Turner 1993).

Subsequently, and as a result of the general interest in “what works,” a new generation of ISP programs emerged in the 1990s. The programs still involved surveillance and control but increased the emphasis on making use of the extra contact time to establish probationers’ risk and need levels and direct them into appropriate treatment. Recently, several reviews and metaanalyses have supported the hypothesis that more modern ISP programs that adhere to the PEI and balance surveillance and control with a treatment component are more promising for reducing recidivism than purely surveillance-based programs (Aos et al. 2006; Drake 2011; Mackenzie 2006). Additional refinements include “community probation” efforts that draw upon additional law enforcement resources to supervise offenders. In these programs, probation officers work in tandem with police officers who are assigned to check in with ISP clients in their beat areas or develop closer relationships with smaller groups of probationers. Although ISP programs have been moving further away from pure surveillance and control, the purpose of most of these multiagency approaches has been surveillance-based, in particular, increasing contact between probation and law enforcement agencies to help police officers learn who are the most serious offenders in their jurisdictions and where they reside (Giblin 2002; Piquero 2003).

International Perspective

Intensive probation has most often been studied and discussed in the United States context. This is perhaps due to its recent history as a cheaper but still punitive alternative to incarceration during a time of significant increase in the prison population, which has occurred to a far greater extent in the United States than anywhere else in the world. Furthermore, post-release probation supervision and aftercare in general are less common in many other countries, especially in Europe (van Kalmthout and Durnescu 2008). However, several other countries have implemented intensive probation and monitoring schemes along similar lines to those seen in the United States. For example, the United Kingdom, whose prison population is the highest in Western Europe and has grown at a record pace, has a highly developed ISP system.

The earliest experimental ISP program in the United Kingdom was the IMPACT (Intensive Matched Probation and After-Care Treatment) scheme in the early 1970s. Surprisingly, the program recognized many of the factors that modern ISP programs in the United States focus on today: that high-risk offenders on probation have complex needs that contribute to their failure rates and probation officers spend little time dealing with them. Offenders were placed in small caseloads and met more frequently with their probation officers than control group participants. Supervision strategies were to be tailored to the needs and risk factors of individual offenders, combine treatment and support with control, and be delivered in the probation office and the client’s own environment. The program showed some success for male participants, but not females (Folkard et al. 1976).

Intensive supervision reemerged in the last decade as a provision for serious juvenile offenders. The Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme (ISSP) was introduced in 2001 by the Youth Justice Board specifically to deal with prolific and persistent young offenders. It was not originally intended as an alternative to youth detention but was introduced to target a small proportion of serious juvenile offenders thought to be responsible for a substantial proportion of youth crime and is billed as the most rigorous noncustodial approach in the justice toolkit of England and Wales (a similar scheme, Intensive Monitoring and Supervision, exists in Scotland). The program was described as evidence based and involved a variety of approaches to supervision, including at least two surveillance checks per day, electronic tagging, tracking of movements by probation and police officers, and an intensive program of structured activities including education, training, and correctional treatment. However, the evaluation of the pilot programs showed that although the frequency of new offenses declined in the ISSP samples, it also declined for the comparison groups, and the failure rate for ISSP participants was very high. While it is to be expected that high-risk probationers will remain at high risk of reoffending, the increased intensity of supervision and programming did not appear to affect recidivism relative to standard practice.

Nonetheless, ISSP was rolled out nationally and spurred the development of additional intensive probation and community programs that combine frequent monitoring by probation and police officers with treatment and structured programming, including a similar strategy targeted at young adults, “Intensive Supervision and Monitoring” aimed at persistent offenders of all ages who commit volume property crime, and prolific and other priority offender schemes (Gray et al. 2005). In 2008, ISSP was incorporated into statute through the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act. It can now be attached to a community-based sentence for juvenile offenders called the Youth Rehabilitation Order or imposed as a condition of bail or post-release supervision for juveniles. Intensive supervision conditions can be implemented for 6 or 12 months, with the intensity gradually decreasing over time. Like the earlier version of the scheme, it is intended to offer a mixture of punishment and “positive opportunities,” incorporates a set number of hours of supervision per week, and must include elements of education, training, or employment; restorative justice; programming to address offending behavior and increase interpersonal skills; and family support (Youth Justice Board 2009).

New Zealand also provides for a sentence of intensive supervision, which can be imposed along with a fine or community service scheme, under its Sentencing Act 2002. As in other locations, the sentence is intended for high-risk offenders and requires frequent contacts between the client and probation officer for an average of 12 months (up to 24 months). However, the New Zealand program differs from others in its emphasis on the rehabilitative nature of the sentence. The goal is to reintegrate the offender back into society, on the understanding that the level of need is sufficiently great that this could not be achieved through regular supervision or other programming. Probation officers are expected to direct their clients into appropriate treatment and assist them with addressing specific needs related to reintegration, such as employment and housing issues.

Key Issues And Controversies

Finding An ISP Model That “Works”

The key controversy surrounding ISP programs is whether or not they are effective. Both of the main waves of interest in ISP programs have been deemed a failure, especially given that ISP is one of the few aspects of criminal justice that has been subjected to multiple rigorous experimental tests. ISP was categorized as a program that “doesn’t work” in the influential 1997

University of Maryland report to the United States Congress, Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising (Sherman et al. 1997). By the mid-1990s, interest in the surveillance/control model of probation supervision was largely dead.

However, as discussed earlier, the emergence of the PEI as the dominant paradigm in correctional treatment also drove the development of new ISP programs that focused more on risk, need, and appropriate services. Some of these more recent programs that attempt to balance surveillance with treatment have shown promise. MacKenzie (2006), in a detailed update to the University of Maryland report, lists intensive probation supervision with a treatment component as a “promising” correctional strategy, meaning that further rigorous research is needed but several studies have produced encouraging results. Most recently, a systematic review and meta-analysis of ISP programs confirmed a lack of positive evidence for surveillance-based ISP (Gill 2010). The meta-analysis did not reveal a clear positive effect of treatment-based programs but noted that the programs studied were highly variable and often did not include enough common components to draw meaningful conclusions about the effects of different program features.

There are a number of challenges in drawing conclusions from the overall body of evaluation research on ISP, several of which have already been noted. ISP programs were designed on the basic assumption that supervision is good for offenders in the community, so more of it must be better. However, there have been very few attempts to develop a theoretical basis for probation supervision or identify the qualities of effective supervision strategies (the latter point is discussed in more detail below). Thus, as several scholars have pointed out, there has been very little guidance on how to make supervision more intensive or which strategies work best. This may limit the utility of what the field can learn from ISP research.

It is also clear that much of the ISP research suffered from considerable implementation problems. Although surveillance-based programs were intended to be directed at high-risk offenders, definitions of “high” and “low” risk were not standardized across studies, risk levels varied, and the most serious offenders were often excluded from experiments for safety reasons even though it was not unusual for homicide, robbery, and sexual offenders to appear in probation and parole caseloads. This means that many of the programs studied did not necessarily comply with the PEI. Furthermore, the research studies often involved implementing innovative strategies in agencies that were already using standard probation procedures that had been in place for years and were struggling with limited resources (even when research funding was available). Thus, measurements of effect were sometimes based on an experimental supervision strategy that was not as intensive as intended. The planned ratios of intensity between treatment and control groups in the less successful ISP experiments were often similar because agencies found it difficult to meet their targets for caseload size or contact frequency in both the intensive and regular supervision caseloads. This problem also raises the question of whether ISP is a sustainable strategy in practice.

The uncertainty about the effectiveness of ISP has indicated a clear need for further development of programs to understand the complexities of the relationship between surveillance and treatment, probation officer and client, and the question of which supervision strategies should be employed during more frequent or intensive supervision sessions. In addition to the promising evidence for treatment-based and PEI/RNRbased ISP programs, two recent studies of modern ISP programs that have indicated relatively successful effects on recidivism are the Maryland Proactive Community Supervision (PCS) program (Taxman et al. 2006) and Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) approach (Hawken and Kleiman 2009). Although the two programs follow different approaches, they reveal some promising strategies for further refining future programs.

The PCS approach focuses on service brokerage and individual case planning by probation officers in a proactive and “seamless” model of supervision and treatment. While PCS retains some of the characteristic surveillance and control elements of the classic ISP model, it emphasizes the “nature and intent” of the contacts between probation officers and their clients to allow for greater rapport building. This relationship is the foundation for leveraging services and treatments that will address the offender’s criminogenic needs and build prosocial networks and skills, ultimately facilitating behavioral change. A hallmark of the PCS approach is a “behavioral contract” or supervision plan that is responsive to the offender’s specific needs. This approach follows the principles of behavioral management, which include incentive and sanction schemes; a focus on criminogenic factors, which leads to tailored, but not mandated, treatment and services; and offender accountability. The probation officer acts as a behavioral manager, working with the offender to understand his or her criminogenic risk and needs and also encourage the offender to do so, develop the supervision plan, arrange services, and emphasize, incentivize, and encourage desistance from crime and achievement of goals.

HOPE, in contrast, strongly emphasizes enforcement, surveillance, and deterrence. However, while the potential deterrent effect of traditional ISP programs lay in the general threat of a return to prison if further offending or violations were detected through more frequent and intense surveillance, HOPE is highly specific and targeted. The main focus of HOPE is on increased drug testing. Participants in a randomized controlled trial of HOPE (Hawken and Kleiman 2009) were notified on a daily basis whether or not they had been selected for a random drug test. Test failures were met with swift, certain adjudication and shock incarceration. However, violators were not simply removed from probation and re-incarcerated – after spending a brief period (usually a weekend) in jail, they continued their supervision with probation officers trained in therapeutic techniques, and repeat violators were directed to specialized treatment as well as receiving traditional punishment in the form of jail stays of increasing duration. In addition, prior to being sent to jail, violators appeared before a judge who reminded them of their probation responsibilities. This hearing emphasized the desire of the criminal justice system to see offenders ultimately succeed in their probation term rather than fail.

The HOPE approach closely aligns with the emerging idea of “focused deterrence,” rather than the broader, classical specific deterrent qualities of traditional ISP. PCS embodies some of the same principles. Focused deterrence strategies have most commonly been used in policing. The framework involves implementing a menu of highly specific, targeted sanctions aimed at preventing offending through a multiagency approach that leverages community, police, and probation resources to directly communicate the reasons for sanctions to offenders. In the policing setting, this approach shows considerable promise (Braga and Weisburd 2012). Focused deterrence, incentives and sanctions, and the combination of treatment and accountability have also shown promise in other corrections settings, such as drug courts (Mitchell et al. 2012), and are consistent with the PEI and other bodies of research suggesting that interventions should be implemented at a high level of focus – whether at small places or with the small proportion of individuals who are high risk – and incorporate specific risk factors. These approaches also contrast with traditional surveillance-based ISP programs that leverage increased scrutiny and a higher probability of detecting a violation as threats to deter future offending but do not focus on the content of supervision, the role of the probation officer, or the relationship between officers and clients.

Another important difference between the HOPE and PCS approaches and traditional ISP programs is that the newer programs do not focus on specific alterations to probation intensity, such as finding the optimal frequency of contact or caseload size. As the earlier research suggested, a reduction in caseload size is not automatically accompanied by a guarantee that probation officers will actually be able to spend more time with their clients or offer more intensive treatment. As noted earlier, the realities of implementation often made it difficult for probation officers to sustain more frequent contact with ISP clients in the RAND research, and resource limitations meant that caseload sizes often crept back up to pre-evaluation levels. Studies that have focused on improving the content of supervision as well as the levels of surveillance, for offenders who are at greatest need of supervision, appear to show the most promise.

Understanding The Content Of Supervision

The question of what probation officers actually do when required to supervise offenders more closely is largely unanswered by current research. It is clear from the previous discussions that a lack of focus on the content of supervision has contributed to the failure of both the earliest treatment-based ISP programs and the traditional surveillance-based programs (Clear and Hardyman 1990). On the other hand, more recent programs that have set out specific guidance for how probation officers should spend their time with clients have shown more promising results.

One of the few qualitative studies that have attempted to look inside this “black box” of supervision was by Bonta and colleagues (2008). They examined recordings of over 60 interviews between officers and probationers. They discovered that the probation officers in their sample spent too much time focusing on enforcement and insufficient time on service delivery. The officers did not appear to account for the PEI or offenders’ criminogenic needs and were not equipped with the necessary tools to help clients change their behavior – the elements that the recent research on ISP programs suggests are most crucial to successful outcomes. While this study did not specifically examine ISP programs, the development of ISP research to date has indicated that ISP is not successful when it focuses on enforcement through increased surveillance and control and is most successful when it adheres to the PEI and incorporates behavioral management principles.

Shifting the focus of ISP away from surveillance and enforcement toward directing offenders into appropriate services may also help to reduce the “surveillance artifact” problem. Research on ISP shows that participants tend to be more likely to violate their probation. However, this does not necessarily mean that they are less likely to comply. The increased level of surveillance and drug testing to which they are subjected means that probation officers have more opportunities to detect a violation. This is the “surveillance artifact.” It presents a challenge for evaluations of ISP because one of the goals of the program has been to keep offenders out of prison, yet the higher probability of failure does not necessarily mean that ISP makes offenders’ behavior worse. Pearson (1988) suggested that in some surveillance-based programs in the 1980s, probation officers would “go out in the field actively looking for violations.” This is in contrast to PCS and HOPE, which focus more on the content of supervision and responses to violations. It is clear that the future of efforts to improve intensive probation lie in focusing on how well the programs adhere to the PEI and help to manage clients’ behavior, and moving away from the idea that there is an optimal caseload size or ratio of clients to probation officers that allows for more intensive intervention without clarifying what that intervention should involve.

Low-Intensity Supervision

The principles of effective intervention suggest that intensive supervision, as well as treatment, should be reserved for the highest-risk offenders. More recent attempts at developing ISP programs have taken this into account and have included a greater emphasis on treatment and service brokerage by probation officers in addition to smaller caseloads and more frequent contact. However, even when ISP programs are successful, it can be difficult to implement them well in practice. A key challenge is ensuring that probationers actually receive more intensive supervision. In reality, many probation agencies are understaffed and lack financial resources to hire more officers, and intensive probation clients often end up receiving no more supervision than their traditional supervision counterparts, especially when trial programs (and the associated money and research support) come to an end or are rolled out across the whole agency as standard practice. Low-intensity supervision – allowing the lowest-risk offenders to receive minimal supervision in large caseloads – is an emerging method for dealing with resource issues and allowing existing staff to be reallocated to concentrate on higher-risk clients who pose a greater public safety risk. However, given the prevailing attitude in ISP research that large caseloads have been portrayed as detrimental to crime prevention, this approach raises the question of whether it is “safe” to reduce the level of supervision given to certain offenders in terms of controlling recidivism.

Probation agencies have recently begun experimenting with reducing the intensity of supervision for those at the lowest risk of recidivism. New York City’s probation department initiated these efforts in the mid-2000s by pilot testing an electronic kiosk reporting system for a substantial proportion of its lowest-risk caseload. Probationers checked in regularly using an ATM-style device and could be compelled to see a probation officer if adverse circumstances arose. Although no formal evaluation of the kiosk approach was conducted, an assessment of two-year rearrest rates for probationers assigned to the kiosks showed a slight decline in crime, suggesting that reducing supervision did not affect their outcomes. At the same time, high-risk probationers received more frequent supervision and their rearrest rates also declined (Wilson et al. 2007). Similarly, a study in Oregon found that reducing supervision for low-risk probationers in order to free up resources for intensive supervision of high-risk offenders showed an overall decline in crime for the local probation population compared to the previous “one size fits all” approach.

The most rigorous test of low-intensity probation to date is a randomized controlled trial implemented in the Philadelphia Adult Probation and Parole Department, in which a risk prediction model was used to designate 60 % of the agency’s caseload as low risk, with the ultimate goal of increasing resources and supervision for 10 % of the caseload predicted to be highest risk. Low-risk offenders were randomly allocated to low-intensity supervision, involving a face-to-face or telephone check-in every 3 months in a caseload of 400 per officer, or a control group receiving regular supervision, involving one face-to-face meeting with their probation officer per month in a caseload of 150–200. The experiment revealed no significant differences between the treatment and control groups after 1 or 2 years, suggesting that low-intensity probation is a safe strategy that does not lead to increased recidivism for low-risk offenders (Barnes et al. 2010; Gill 2010).

Further development of the low-intensity supervision concept will likely be crucial to the future of intensive probation. Not only does it allow resources to be allocated more efficiently, potentially giving probation officers working with the highest-risk clients more time to focus on risk and need assessment and service delivery, but it could also play a key role in enhancing the effectiveness of ISP by moving it further into line with the PEI. As discussed above, many of the ISP strategies tested in the 1980s were not always targeted at probationers at highest risk of recidivism and in greatest need of treatment. Furthermore, some of those evaluations found that ISP was especially ineffective – and in some cases even backfired – for the lowest-risk offenders (Hanley 2006). This is consistent with broader research on the PEI that suggests recidivism among low-risk offenders tends to increase when they are subjected to more intensive programming and that they can safely be assigned to the least restrictive settings (Lowenkamp and Latessa 2004). Research also suggests that low-level delinquents are more susceptible to the influence of more delinquent peers, suggesting that they may be better served by spending more time away from the probation office where they will mix with other offenders and focusing on building positive social relationships and opportunities away from criminal networks (Barnes et al. 2010; Lowenkamp et al. 2006; Lowenkamp and Latessa 2004). In theory, by reducing the time probation officers spend dealing with low-risk clients who are unlikely to recidivate again regardless of the level of intervention, ISP for the highest-risk offenders can be properly resourced and subsequently approved.

Conclusions And Future Directions

Understanding effective practices in probation supervision is important not just to alleviate concerns about probation as a “soft option” and to efficiently use limited resources. It is crucial to understand what works in probation supervision in its own right, not just as a background to leveraging treatment and other programs. Without a strong supervisory foundation, probation officers may not have the opportunity to learn how best to target programming most effectively. Further, when agencies lack funding and caseloads are large (often 150–200), brief supervision meetings may be the only interaction that occurs between the client and the agency. Outside the ISP context, supervision levels can vary widely, from weekly or twice-weekly meetings for high-risk or delinquent probationers to telephone reporting for those near the end of their sentences. In especially busy agencies, clients sometimes simply mail in a card periodically to confirm their contact details (Petersilia and Turner 1993).

The controversies surrounding ISP and the research on treatment effectiveness strongly indicate that probation is most effective when related to the client’s risk and need, rather than the agency’s operational capabilities. Of course, operational capabilities cannot be disregarded, but finding a balance between the two is crucial. Programs like HOPE appear to be having some success in that regard by minimizing the time probation officers spend on surveillance and control unless the client’s behavior or need warrants it. The probation population in the United States has only recently stabilized after growing by more than half a million between 2000 and 2008 alone. Currently 1 in 48 adults is under probation or parole supervision (Glaze and Bonczar 2011). With nearly five million individuals under community supervision, probation agencies must identify efficient and effective ways to restructure supervision and focus proven strategies where they are needed the most.

The current state of research, knowledge, and practice concerning intensive probation highlights a number of future directions for researchers and practitioners seeking to study and improve ISP programming. There is still a need for increased focus on the content of supervision to understand which supervision strategies are most effective for high-risk offenders. It is clear that when the development of ISP programs has focused on what has been termed the “search for the magic number” – trying to discover the optimal caseload size or ratio of clients to probation officers – outcomes for offenders have not been favorable. While intermediate sanctions like ISP are an important strategy for reducing the financial burdens in other areas of the criminal justice system, the ultimate goal should be to protect public safety and ensure that offenders receive a system response that balances punishment with effective intervention, treatment, and assistance to prevent future recidivism. Thus, the content and goals of supervision strategies should be central to the future development of intensive probation. A number of researchers and practitioners have already recognized this and have developed pilot programs centered around focused deterrence and behavioral management approaches to supervision and treatment that are showing promise. These approaches should be further refined and tested using rigorous evaluation methods including randomized trials (a multisite replication of the HOPE experiment is already under way, funded by the United States National Institute of Justice and Bureau of Justice Assistance).

The discussion of low-intensity supervision suggests that intensive probation programs could be most successful when they are implemented as part of a whole-agency approach to restructuring supervision and resource allocation around offender risk and need, rather than as an add-on to regular probation. As probation agencies continue to grapple with increasing caseloads and dwindling budgets, innovative strategies will be needed to maintain effective supervision. Most probation agencies typically follow a “one size fits all” approach to probation supervision and do not vary resources according to risk, largely because typical caseloads are so large that probation officers cannot devote extra time to the supervision of higher-risk or higher-need offenders. However, this might be achievable when agencies adhere to the principles of effective intervention and classify their entire caseload according to risk. Research and practice in this context should therefore continue to focus on developing and refining reliable risk prediction instruments at both ends of the spectrum.

Finally, for criminologists interested in intensive probation, there remains a need to clarify the theoretical basis for ISP programs. While a number of theories have been suggested for how ISP should work, programs have typically been developed in purely practical settings. As the principles of effective intervention show, returning to theoretical principles and causal mechanisms can help to identify common features of effective programs and inform the development of future programs, especially when there is uncertainty about the effectiveness of an approach. Future research in this area should focus on identifying and testing the mechanisms that underlie successful ISP programs and differentiate them from those that have been less effective and seek to clarify the role and need for post-offense or post-release intensive supervision. Does ISP serve a purpose in itself over and above regular supervision, or is it simply a foundation for directing offenders to appropriate treatment?


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