Last week, we looked at five issues that have contributed to probation being a primary driver of incarceration.  A quick reminder of what the issues are:

  1. Excessive Rules
  2. Inappropriate Supervision Levels
  3. Inadequate Treatment
  4. Long Probation Terms
  5. Overextended Probation Staff

Missed last week’s post? Catch up here.

Here’s a quick synopsis before we move on.

Probation in the US was created to be an alternative to incarceration and enable the individual to stay in their community. At the state level, America didn’t have a formal probation system until the mid-1800s, and it wasn’t until 1956 that every state had both adult and juvenile probation programs. Federal probation rolled out in 1925. Until the 1970s, probation programs—federal and state—were based on a rehabilitative model. Then, in 1974, Robert Martinson published “What Works?” and concluded that the rehabilitative model was not effective. His arguments fell on fertile soil. The rehabilitation model of probation was rapidly discarded and replaced with a compliance and surveillance (C&S) based model. The legacy endures and today many probation programs continue to follow a C&S model.


Before we can dive into how these five issues are being addressed, we need to discuss an important overarching question. Studies have repeatedly shown that inappropriate supervision—particularly of low-risk individuals—can increase the likelihood of recidivism. We also know that large probation caseloads are a major reason why probation staff struggles to provide adequate support to the individuals in their care.

Both issues contribute to poor probation outcomes and both can be addressed by asking, “who actually needs to be on probation?” Knowing what population will benefit from supervision and ensuring that is the population enrolled in probation is a concrete way to reduce inappropriate supervision and decrease caseloads. So what population is that? Studies show that “supervision and treatment should be prioritized for people assessed as having a higher risk for recidivism and a greater need for services,” which leads us to evidence-based practices (EBP).

By the late 90s, probation practitioners and researchers were increasingly pointing out the “ineffectiveness” of the probation models introduced after Martinson’s article in 1974, which led to a renewed interest in the rehabilitative probation model. However, this time around, “integrating rehabilitative strategies….[was coupled with] an emphasis on using evidence-based practices (EBP).”

Now, EBPs are recognized as an important part of tackling probation issues and are a primary way they are addressed. Broadly, they are “outcome-focused approaches and interventions that have been scientifically tested in controlled studies and proven effective.” EBPs commonly used in probation include:

Researchers and practitioners argue that the end goal of EBPs should be “establish[ing] effective and appropriate supervision conditions,” which will, in turn, lead to rehabilitation, decreased recidivism, and healthier communities.  


Before we go further, let’s take a moment to discuss why establishing effective and appropriate supervision is important. One of the main benefits of probation is getting to remain in the community rather than going to jail or prison. In return, individuals on probation agree to abide by a set of rules and if they don’t abide by them, they face the consequences. Unfortunately, all too often, the list of rules is excessive. Meaning, oftentimes, individuals fail to follow them and end up facing sanctions that can lead to incarceration.

So, the question becomes, what conditions make sense? Researchers and practitioners assert that programs should only impose conditions that benefit public safety and are tailored to the individual’s specific needs. While also emphasizing the need for programs to simplify contact between program staff and the individual by utilizing technology and place-based supervision.

What’s place-based supervision? In place-based supervision, programs work to ensure probation staff and treatment services are as near as possible to the location of the individual. Making it simpler for both staff and individuals to adhere to program conditions leading to better outcomes.

Tying into effective and appropriate supervision, is another key issue, probation length. The Pew Institute notes, “a growing list of high-quality studies have shown that long probation sentences are not associated with lower rates of recidivism and are more likely than shorter ones to lead to technical violations,” adding many people spend longer on probation than necessary for public safety. So another question effective and appropriate supervision should ask is, how long does the individual need to be on probation?

To summarize, effective and appropriate supervision includes:

  1. Evidence-based practices
  2. A balanced number of supervision conditions that benefit public safety
  3. Conditions that are tailored to the individual
  4. Simplified contact between the individual and program staff
  5. Shorter probation lengths

According to researchers, there are existing probation models that can facilitate this type of supervision. In the next part of our series—coming Thursday!—we’ll explore those models and dive into how Reconnect helps programs effectively implement them.


A Fireside Chat with Chief Wendy Still 

This week Reconnect is launching our 2021 Webinar Series. We’re kicking things off with a fireside chat with Alameda County’s Chief Probation Officer Wendy Still.

Chief Still is retiring this year after spending 40+ years working diligently in community corrections. During that time, she has witnessed drastic policy shifts, the evolvement of effective evidence-based practices, and countless other industry milestones as well as overseen the implementation of innovative technology while being a relentless advocate for change and progress within the system.

Join us, as Chief Still reflects on her eventful career, and offers advice in an intimate conversation with Reconnect’s CEO Sam Hotchkiss.

When: January 28, 2021, at 4:00 pm ET

Spaces are limited, register now!

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