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Problem solving involves addressing at least one of three elements: vulnerable targets or victims; accessible and poorly managed places; or persistent offenders. The problem-solving triangle, shown in Figure 1, summarizes this principle. In this guide, we focus on offenders. In particular, we focus on individuals who have already been identified as offenders by prosecutors and courts and are currently under some form of community-based supervision, such as probation or parole. The rationale for attending to these individuals in problem solving is obvious: they have demonstrated their willingness to engage in crime, and they are known, unlike many others in the community.
To create problem responses that effectively address offenders under community supervision, it is critical that police understand what we currently know about the usefulness of various ways of handling such individuals. Researchers and correctional officials have conducted considerable research into the effectiveness of various community supervision techniques and offender rehabilitation. Much is known about the techniques that work and that do not work. Unfortunately, this knowledge often has failed to makes its way to local decision-makers, including corrections and police officials.
The first goal of this guide is to inform police about what is known about offenders who are currently under community supervision by order of courts or correctional authorities. Though many of these individuals are not engaged in criminal activity currently, the past behavior of people under community supervision strongly suggests that they have a heightened risk of reoffending. Consequently, reducing the risks of offending for people on probation, and parole can be an ingredient in sustainable solving crime problems.
In this guide, we discuss how correctional agencies supervise offenders who are on community release. Understanding community supervision can be extremely useful for solving such problems. This response guide provides police with a review of the most effective practices for monitoring offenders on conditional release. This will help police and their problem-solving partners better understand community supervision so police can work effectively with community corrections agencies. Thus, our second goal is to assist in developing police-community corrections partnerships when such partnerships are useful for addressing problems.
There are three reasons why offenders under community supervision are important to police.
First, individuals on bail, probation, and parole have higher risks of criminal involvement than general population. When analyzing a persistent problem, makes sense to investigate whether offenders under community supervision are part of that problem.
Second, these offenders are known; criminal justice agencies have some control over them, and the police in particular have leverage over offender conduct. This can be important when such offenders are connected to the crime problem being addressed. Enlisting community corrections agencies in problem-solving partnerships is particularly important when responding to such problems.
Third, offenders on supervised release reside in the community. These individuals may be tempted by accessible targets or facilitating crime places. Making targets less vulnerable and places less conducive to crime, can help divert probationers and parolees from the temptations of criminogenic situations. In this way, problem-solving efforts can aid offender rehabilitation. This may create a spill-over effect because rehabilitated offenders will be far less likely to participate in other crime problems.
To effectively partner with community correctional authorities, police need to know what strategies work. What sorts of supervision can curtail crime and what sorts may increase crime? What rehabilitation services are effective at curbing offending and what programs are ineffective? Researchers have come a long way in uncovering what works in deterring and treating offenders – not 100% of the time, but better than alternatives. Equally important, researchers have uncovered what practices do not work. In short, there is considerable evidence about what works and what does not work in monitoring offenders.
Unfortunately, not all courts and correctional agencies are using evidence-based practices for managing offenders in the community. Consequently, many may be wasting resources using practices that have no impact on recidivism and crime in their communities. If agencies in your area are not using evidence based practices, you have a dilemma. If probation and parole authorities are not engaging in best practices, should you seek to change their practices before you precede to potential crime solutions? This may divert attention from pressing concerns, perhaps for many years, and could result in interagency conflict that impedes problem solving. Or, would it be better for you not to partner with these agencies? This may avoid encumbering your problem solutions with ineffective practices, but it also can remove potential allies from the problem solving process. Regrettably, we do not have an answer to this dilemma. We suspect you can find at least partial answers based on specific knowledge you can gather locally. In this case, is essential for you to be familiar with what is known about community supervision of offenders.
Community correctional supervision represents a contract between the offender and the court: The individual’s freedom is conditional, and any behavior that violates the expectations of the case plan can result in the loss of liberty. An offender can be under community supervision for four reasons.
Pre-trial release / Bail is the temporary release from jail for an accused individual awaiting trial.
Probation is a period of correctional supervision that is completed in the community as an alternative to incarceration.
Mandatory parole is a period of supervision in the community following release from prison, required as part of the offender’s sentence due to their threat to public safety.
Discretionary parole is a period of supervision in the community following a provisional release from prison, as determined by a judgment of the inmate’s readiness.
Over the last several decades, there have been numerous policy changes in how offenders are handled in the community. These have resulted in changes in the offender population. Many jurisdictions have abolished discretionary parole, abandoning the possibility for prisoners to earn their release. As a result, prison and jail populations have skyrocketed (see Figure 2). Most of these people will reenter the community at some later date, usually under some form of community supervision. There has also been a large increase in the proportion of non-violent and drug offenders on conditional release. Contrary to what many believe, sanctioning low risk offenders increases their likelihood of sticking with crime (we will say more about this later). So, as more low-risk offenders are sanctioned, their criminality increases. The communities absorbing these offenders must develop strategies to disrupt this cycle of recidivism.
Though criminal justice spending has grown over time, most of the increase in funding has gone to police protection. Community corrections are being required to do more with less; caseloads have risen at the same time that services for offenders on conditional release has diminished. Given the context the police must work in, the need for effective monitoring practices is greater now than ever.
Though there is no way to know how many actively offending individuals are on conditional release, we know that there are many on probation or parole at any one time. At year’s end 2010, nearly five million offenders (about 1 in 48 adults in the U.S.) were under conditional release (see Figure 3). Of the 1.6 million offenders in American prisons, the overwhelming majority (around 95% will be returned to the community, at the rate of approximately 700,000 individuals per year.
In 2010, the number of offenders under community supervision declined, following thirty years of increases. Of the 4,887,900 offenders on conditional release, probationers account for 83% of this total (see Table 1). Property offenders receive probation more often, while violent and drug offenders are a larger proportion of parolees. The average supervision term is 22 months for probation, and 18 months for parole.
The majority of offenders are supervised without incident, though absconding (such as moving to a new state without notifying the court, or regularly failing to attend scheduled meetings) is more common with probationers. Rates of failure in probation supervision are much lower than for parole: In 2010, nearly two-thirds of probationers successfully completed the terms of their supervision, while only 35% of parolees satisfactorily completed their supervision.
Police, courts, and corrections officials may have very different definitions of what failure versus success look like for offenders on conditional release. These differences are important, because they reflect differences in agencies’ goals that must be addressed if police-corrections partnerships are to be successful. For community corrections agencies, interventions are usually judged by their ability to lower rates of recidivism. For police, interventions are successful if crime declines. These are related, but not closely because they occur over different time scales. Recidivism may decline slowly for offenders but not as fast as police require in problem solving.
There are two other important and related points that you should be aware of.
First, there is a distinction between technical violations and recidivism. Technical violations represent rules of the supervision term breached by an offender (such as failing to seek employment or associating with a known gang member). These rules are designed to increase the chances of offenders moving away from crime, but violations of these rules are not criminal. Such rule breaking is common. Recidivism usually is measured by the rate at which offenders acquire new arrests, convictions, sentences, or incarcerations. Technical violations of parole conditions accounted for more than one-third of all prison admissions in 2003, while only ten percent of parolees returned to prison due to a new conviction.1 Similarly, nearly half of all jail inmates are on probation or parole at the time of their arrest.2
Second, like other patterns of behavior, small relapses are not a total failure. Like cheating on a diet or smoking one cigarette while trying to quit, temporary setbacks are common among offenders under supervision. Technical violation of conditions of release may not be good indicators of persistence in crime, as the rules violated are often unrelated to offending. Desisting from crime is a gradual and cumulative process. Further, an individual may remain involved in crime, at the same time their level of involvement may be decreasing.
Police have the immediate goal of reducing a crime problem of interest, preferably in months. Community corrections officials have the more distant goal of reducing offending; rehabilitation takes many months, and the time to success is often measured in years, as relapses in progress are expected. These goals may sound similar, yet evaluating these goals is different for each agency: Police look for absolute, definitive signs of success (e.g., thefts from auto in the target area have decreased by half), while correctional authorities look for comparative, subtle signs of success (e.g., the offender reports less anger since drug use has decreased).
There is unfortunately no general solution to this goal conflict: only local solutions. There are, however, seven useful points to consider.
Varieties of Offender Monitoring
Community supervision, like policing, has experimented with a number of approaches. In this section, we will examine some core approaches and best practices, as defined by research outcomes. We will highlight the continued tension between approaches designed to control offenders and those that focus on rehabilitation. Again, these are general tendencies; your community corrections agencies will have a more specific approach.
Conditions of Supervision
The rules the offender must abide by can be highly varied. Community supervision can require offenders to abide by a number of different conditions, and these conditions may vary according to an offender’s risks for reoffending. The court sometimes requires that particular conditions be part of a case plan. Community corrections agents may tailor the case plan for an offender, choosing from a number of possible contingencies.
Despite the variety of conditions a community corrections agent may impose on an offender, the principle goal of most agents is for the offending of their clients to cease, however, there are different strategies for controlling offenders. Some strategies focus on how helping offenders learn how to exercise self-control, typically by having offenders undergo rehabilitation. Others focus on the environments offenders encounter, typically by restricting where offenders can go or who they can meet. And, others focus on threats of punishment, typically through strict rule enforcement. We depict these three strategies as layers in Figure 4.
Starting with the outer layer, the general environment includes general threats of deterrence, such as incarceration for misbehavior. The immediate environment includes situations and people who are likely to encourage offenders to reoffend. These are addressed by demanding that offenders avoid them. This may include prohibitions on the use of alcohol and drugs, association with gang members or other offenders, being in possession of firearms, being near places where children congregate (for pedophiles, for example). But, it may also include mandated actions: active job search or alcohol treatment, for example. Control of the immediate environment overlaps with efforts to enhance internal controls through rehabilitation. Rehabilitation services that have the most promise are those that aim to alter offenders’ the cognitive processes: how they perceive, interpret, and act up situations.
None of these three layers can stand alone in preventing recidivism; a quality supervision plan should include conditions that address all three layers. Indeed, these layer overlap. Restrictions on the immediate environment, ultimately rest upon a threat of punishment, should the offender not comply with these conditions. Similarly, participation in rehabilitation may be backed-up with an external threat of punishment, if the offender does not attend. Immediate environmental restrictions can reinforce rehabilitation by keeping offenders out of tempting environments. And rehabilitation can backstop environmental restrictions by reducing the temptation such environments create.
Each of these layers has different recommended strategies for reducing recidivism. Despite advances in research and technology, the core elements of community supervision have remained fairly stable. They focus on the immediate environment through the imposition of individual case plans. These case plans typically include:
In addition to the standard approach, just described, correctional authorities have developed and experimented with a number of “add-ons”. Table 2 provides an overview of some of the popular add-ons to traditional offender monitoring conditions. Interventions that are tailored to the risks and needs of the individual offender show the greatest promise of reducing recidivism; these programs involve graded sanctions, an emphasis on individual change, and reintegrative treatment. Some interventions are counterproductive; programs that are generically applied, or heightened control through surveillance fail to reduce recidivism. Intensive supervision often leads only to increases in technical violations, a huge contribution to the failure of community supervision.3, 4
Although there are dozens of strategies for reducing recidivism among conditionally released offenders, the majority fall into one of two categories: rehabilitation or control (see Table 3). Both classes of supervision approaches have techniques that work to prevent crime, do not change offender behavior, or that cause more crime.
Despite a long generation in correctional policy that claimed treatment was futile, research now demonstrates the opposite. With the use of actuarial risk and needs assessments, the development of effective correctional interventions,5 and a massive knowledgebase of what works, offender treatment has returned to the mainstream. When sanctions are used in the background while the primary focus is individualized treatment, offenders are less likely to return to crime.6 Hundreds of empirical studies have shown that several principles reduce reoffending (see Table 4).7 Evaluations of community supervision programs demonstrate that adherence to these principles can produce substantial increases in offender success.8
Much has also been learned about what programs do not reduce recidivism. This is important, because resources are being wasted on ineffective practices, and some strategies may actually increase offending, thereby jeopardizing public safety. Interventions that do not target for change those characteristics that are known to cause crime are destined to fail. Popular subcultural, medical, and new age “treatments” (such as pet therapy, cosmetic surgery, baking classes, or drum circles) do not prevent crime.
Advances in technology, such as through drug testing and electronic monitoring, have made heightened surveillance of offenders possible. Evaluations show that many programs have achieved substantial increases in the detection of technical violations, though reoffending rates did not change. This is because technical violations may not be related to criminal offending, or offenders’ failures to comply with treatment components. Numerous studies show that an increase in toughness, surveillance, or control does not correspond with positive offender change or improved public safety. In fact, many studies demonstrate that these “punishing smarter” strategies overwhelm the system. While popular, one of the most ineffective practices is intensive supervision;9 watching offenders more closely does not reduce crime, but only draws more attention to the technical rule violations which results in reincarceration.
After a number of blanket approaches to offender control failed to demonstrate reductions in offending, many jurisdictions began experimenting with focused deterrence (see Box 1). These strategies intensify enforcement on specific individuals responsible for much of the offending within a high crime area. Evaluations of these interventions have shown substantial promise in crime reduction. The principle components of focused deterrence are 1) communicating a clear, unambiguous threat to a small number of active networked offenders, 2) coupling this message with active community support, and 3) the provision of services to offenders wanting to exit crime.
Given the limitations of traditional supervision, community corrections agencies recognized the need to balance rehabilitation and control (Figure 3). While correctional rehabilitation is a necessary ingredient in achieving desistance, as a safeguard, individuals at risk of committing additional crimes must be subject to some level of control. Multi-agency collaborations allow for the marriage of two seemingly incompatible goals: Offenders can be actively monitored so that risk is managed and short-term compliance is achieved, while still focusing on services that address the factors necessary for long-term behavioral change.
One manifestation of these best practices is seen in proactive community supervision.10 Rather than emphasizing meticulous control (and incarceration of offenders for technical violations), this supervision model manages behavior. Agents monitor, measure, reward and punish offenders’ behavior as necessary, until they observe pro-social change. Proactive supervision includes standardized assessments of dynamic (i.e., changeable) risk factors, matching supervisees to services that reduce criminality, emphasizing achievement through reinforcement, and maintaining an environment where offenders can make small steps and learn from relapses.11 Behavioral management strategies require multiple community partnerships, and police are pivotal in shaping the actions of offenders on release. 12
Although probation and parole authorities maintain central responsibility for the monitoring of offenders on conditional release, research demonstrates that partnerships with community organizations are highly beneficial.13 Evaluations of these partnerships show impressive success, as each agency provides information, capabilities, and approaches that complement others involved in the collaboration.
The police represent the most influential partner in offender supervision strategies. The very nature of their public role has relevance for these offenders.Police become extremely familiar with the chronic offenders in their jurisdiction. As community corrections agents cannot keep constant tabs on the offenders under their control, it is a practical necessity to incorporate the knowledge-base and interpersonal relations skills of the police.
In addition to the police, communities are pivotal in encouraging positive supervision outcomes. Community agencies are often responsible for the removal of conditions that influence crime and are invaluable bedrocks of treatment options. When police strengthen relationships with community service providers, officers can advocate for offenders needing treatment and can encourage treatment providers to reduce crime opportunities. To be effective, police and social service providers must focus on each offender’s supervision needs, rather than a zero-tolerance strategy.
“What prevents effective partnerships between two justice entities that have the same mission? One answer that I have heard often is that police spend much of their time getting offenders off the street while probation and parole officers are trying to keep these same offenders in the community.” – Carl Wicklund, Executive Director, American Probation and Parole Association.14
Collaborations can be effective, but the traditional roles of police and corrections may hinder the chance to achieve offender change. Jurisdictions seeking to establish a police – corrections partnership should be prepared for three common problems.15 16 First, officers identify mission creep as problematic, in which their roles and responsibilities expanded beyond what was manageable. Next, mission distortion is common, where officers’ identity in relation to their professional role becomes blurred. Finally, officers complained of organizational lag, where agency indifference slowed the capability of officers to achieve goals. To address these difficulties, successful collaborations include a clearly defined mission statement, an established understanding of each agent’s role, and clear ways to reach the stated goals.17 Two organizational strategies are particularly effective.
The most common collaborations maintain clear boundaries between police and community corrections agents. The two separate agencies share information, sometimes in an equally accessible database. In other partnerships, probation officers and police officers meet to exchange information on what is known about and what is expected of offenders under community supervision. This open communication should continue beyond meetings, and police should feel comfortable (even obligated) to contact supervising officers when additional information is obtained or needed. At minimum, these agencies must work together so that police, in routine work, have a clear idea of the legal status of the offenders in their jurisdiction.
A newer approach merges some police and corrections roles. Some jurisdictions (mostly in the United Kingdom) are creating multi-agency collaborations referred to as “polibation.” These partnerships providing cross-training to police and correctional agents.18 In one program, these cross trained agents (polibation officers) provide one-on-one support for an individual offender from pre-release to the expiration of their term. Polibation officers coordinate multiple agencies activities, and help probation and police to engage in outcome-oriented work. That is, they balance compliance with supervision conditions and treatment efforts.19 Polibation officers allow other agents, in the police and correctional services, to focus on specifically on rehabilitation or control. The polibation officers act as central organizers and balance these competing goals. Police report that they are better able to do their job when they had new information on offenders.
For interagency partnerships to be mutually beneficial and enhance public safety, four features should be present.20 First, the goals, roles, and responsibilities of each partnering agency must be clearly defined. Next, the mission of probation, parole, and police must be balanced. Third, each agency must respect the rights and responsibilities of others involved. Finally, the organizational structure of the partnership may need modified, and re-modified, to fully support the partnership.
Table 5 provides a brief review of current, successful partnerships. A common theme in these collaborations is increased communication, fostering teamwork and increasing reciprocity. Successful collaborations exhibit three characteristics: 1) they engage the offender in the process of change in an assessment of the offender’s criminogenic factors and the development of a plan to address these factors, 2) they use of targeted services and controls to assist the offender to carry out his/her plan, and 3) they sustain offender improvement through compliance management techniques.21
You should not judge the success of a partnership by the ability of police and community correctional agencies to work together. That is a necessary but insufficient condition. Rather, successful partnerships are able to transition individuals from offenders to productive members of the community. As we have noted, this requires a balance of rehabilitation and control.
Although the delivery of traditional treatment approaches are outside the control of the police, there are many things police can do to stimulate and maintain law-abiding behavior among probationers and parolees.
Because offenders on conditional release have a demonstrable pattern of breaking the law, the police play a pivotal role in preventing, detecting, and responding to relapses in anti-social behavior. In particular, interagency collaborations provide an opportunity for police to enforce conditions of supervision agreements and provide superior information about at-risk supervisees; allowing community corrections agents to focus on offender treatment.
Many offenders on conditional release require special supervision conditions. Although there are a great number of special offender groups, we have chosen five classifications that the police are most likely to encounter, and that illustrate how police can assist in community corrections. Although each category has dozens of research studies about what works in preventing crime, space limitations here prevent a full review. In addition to encouraging pro-social behavior among offenders and assuring compliance with probation or parole conditions, there are special tasks for which the police are well-suited.32, 33
Two stipulations common to sex offenders give police tools for handling sex offenders under community supervision. First, many sex offenders are required to enroll in a sex offender registry, several requiring some form of electronic monitoring. This gives officers the ability to track the movements of these offenders. Second, most sex offenders are restricted in where they can go (e.g., cannot be within 500 yards of a playground); police should be knowledgeable these space restrictions and can use them in problem-solving efforts. The police are also well-positioned to provide offender identification and victim notification services.34
Drug dealing and sex solicitation often requires poor place management in neighborhoods. Addressing these conditions can not only help reduce consensual crimes, it can also help offenders under community supervision from reengaging with the drug or sex trade.35 The police are a crucial part of multi-agency and community-wide interventions aimed at disrupting early signs of these offenders.36 Aside from place management, officers are ideally situated to assist corrections agents in conducting meetings and property / person searches.
Many offenders convicted of driving while intoxicated receive special conditions as part of their provisional release. Police can assist in enforcing supervision stipulations.37 For example, many offenders are prohibited from consuming alcohol, or being in attendance of any place or event where alcohol is knowingly served; they may also have a court-ordered curfew or general restrictions on driving. Officers can accompany corrections agents during curfew checks, and should encourage compliance with (and reprimand violations of) supervision conditions.
Being in a gang is not a crime, but the social activities involved with such associations can often lead to crime. Most offenders on community supervision are restricted from socializing with gang members, possessing a weapon, or being around drugs or alcohol. Police departments are most effective at targeted enforcement as part of a larger focused deterrence initiative (see Box 1).38 As part of these interventions, probation and parole officers often perform home visits, where police can assist corrections in conducting home searches, making service referrals, and reinforcing the deterrence (“pulling levers”) message.39
Public nuisances are often the result of a relatively few chronic offenders. Using a problem-orientation allows the police to enforce public disorder ordinances that are contributing to reoffending. 40 In relation to community-supervised offenders in particular, police officers can meet with offenders prior to their release to help outline the conditions of their freedom, clarify expectations, and provide the threat of enforcement for violations of their case plan.
Focusing policing efforts on high-rate serious offenders has the potential to prevent more crimes. However, doing so requires a multi-agency intervention, and a wealth of community resources for offenders seeking to desist.41 In aiding probation and parole agencies, police officers can provide expert surveillance and perform supervision condition compliance checks during home visits.42 Police departments can additionally provide victim notification and education resources. Again, when the offenders are known, a targeted enforcement approach (see Box 1) works best.
Because offenders on conditional release can be important contributors to many problems, police have an interest in monitoring these individuals and preventing recidivism. As the information in this guide has discussed, there are a number of tactics that are proven effective at reducing relapse among community-supervised offenders. Equally important, there are several strategies that do not work, and can even make things worse.
When considering police-community corrections collaboration, a number of offender rights must also be considered. There are two potential limitations that police should be mindful of.
Most problematic are warrantless searches. Much collaboration involves police officers accompanying probation or parole agents to do home visits or curfew checks. This creates the “stalking horse” phenomenon, in which police gain access to offenders’ homes through their partnering visit.43 Police may accompany probation or parole on warrantless home visits so long as they are under direction of the community corrections agent, and the search is performed for probationary purposes. When the probation/parole officer is being guided by police, or when home visits serve police purposes, resulting gains are illegal.
Second, many innovative programs rely on sharing information relevant to supervised offenders; and though the potential benefits of data exchanges are innumerable, many barriers are present. The National Institute of Justice identifies three steps to overcoming obstacles in data sharing.44
First, exact confidentiality laws must be known, with particular attention to the scope and quality of the data. Organizations must find out what limitations exist for intra-agency information sharing. Often, permission can be gained to bypass confidentiality restrictions following approval of new crime reduction partnerships.
Second, policies for data entry and access may need modified. When information cannot be freely exchanged due to existing procedures, changes must be made to data storage and retrieval systems so that agents from either side may access the shared database.
Third, staff should be made aware of the benefits of improved and expanded information flow. When job performance will be affected, staff should be trained on how to work within the bounds of the new data sharing procedures. In particular, staff can learn how to maximize the other agency’s data without interrupting existing processes.
Implications for Police and Offender Monitoring
Any problem-solving effort that only deals with offenders risks being unsustainable. New offenders may replace rehabilitated offenders unless the opportunities for crime are also reduced. Problem-solving efforts must address more than one side of the crime triangle (see Figure 1).
Offender-only solutions are not only vulnerable to offender replacement, they may be less effective than solutions that marry monitoring and rehabilitation to crime opportunity blocking. The reason for this is simple: An offender undergoing rehabilitation who is routinely tempted by crime opportunities is more likely to relapse than a similar offender who is not tempted. By blocking temptations, chances of relapse decrease. We suggest that there is an important synergy between opportunity blocking and rehabilitation. Problem-solving solutions that combine both treatment and control can convert active offenders to former offenders faster, and can prevent new offenders from being created.
The most effective collaborations will use police in a specific capacity for which they are useful, rather than in a general support role for corrections agencies. Using the information in this guide, there are specific implications for how police can assist in monitoring offenders on conditional release. Referring back to the crime triangle (see Figure 1), police can follow six guidelines to help reduce recidivism of probationers and parolees, thereby increasing public safety.
Helping offenders leave crime can be an important component in problem solving. However, lessons from research in community corrections points to effective and ineffective approaches to monitoring offenders. Police agencies represent an invaluable tool in improving outcomes for conditionally released offenders as partners with community corrections agencies. When the emphasis of offender monitoring is promoting desistance, police agencies have a vital role to play. Notably, police may expand their tactics to include informal social control and community justice, and may serve as experts in surveillance. Most importantly, when police are aware of the offenders in their community that are supervised on conditional release, they are in a unique position to enhance control and match offenders to services.