Probation and Parole: Why Don't We Do What Works?


Probation and parole agencies in the US are in a challenging position. A comprehensive and compelling body of research and knowledge, known as evidence-based practices (EBP), suggests that well-designed and well-implemented correctional programs can reduce recidivism significantly.

This is not just an academic exercise. The research has been put into practice in a number of jurisdictions with impressive results.

But these jurisdictions remain the exception to the rule. The sad truth is that the majority of agencies are not implementing EBP. Of the minority that are, too many are approaching it in piecemeal fashion, which is unlikely to achieve the impressive potential reductions in recidivism that both research and practice suggest are possible.

This frustrates me, because probation and parole continue to suffer from poor outcomes and a marginal public image. We can do better, and we know how. What is holding us back? This is an opportunity to transform community corrections that won't last forever.

I recently heard a radio program that revealed to me that we are not alone with this challenge. The program described the struggles in public education to reduce violence in schools.

The commentators discussed a seven-part series published by the Philadelphia Inquirer on violence in the Philadelphia schools.

As I listened to the program, I was struck by the many parallels between efforts to reduce violence in school and the efforts to reduce recidivism through EBP in probation and parole.

I felt a little bit better since another field was struggling as we are, but I was left frustrated by the fact that in public education, the knowledge exists on how to reduce violence in schools, but the programs are not being implemented widely.

Public educators face the same dilemmas probation and parole: effective models exist but are not being universally or even widely applied.

The parallels between school violence reduction efforts and EBP in probation and parole include:

  • Getting tough with problem kids in school doesn't work. As one commentator said: “you can't arrest and suspend your way to a positive school environment.”
  • Leadership is critical, especially that of school principals;
  • Staff at all levels of of the school must be involved in violence reduction programming;
  • Parents need to be engaged and play an active role in the school and with their child's education;
  • Teachers need specific skills to deal with children with problem behaviors. They generally don't get this in their undergraduate education

Effective interventions in schools involve teaching new behaviors.

Behavior change is about teaching kids new skills, to help them change their behavior.

Teachers need to be trained how to “teach to the behavior,” understanding the reasons why the child misbehaved and teaching alternatives such as problem solving skills and conflict resolution techniques.

Teachers and staff need to build relationships with students that are based on trust, respect and open communication.

This point about positive interpersonal relationships echoes a comment from another story about reducing school violence. An educator involved with creating a “culture of calm” in the Chicago public schools said that the most important factor in school culture is the quality of the relationships of students with teachers and school staff.

This comment evokes a finding by Craig Dowden and the late Don Andrews in discussing the Core Correctional Practices that emerged from the research on effective correctional programs.

A strong interpersonal relationship between the probation/parole officer and the offender was one of the five practices, and “is arguably the most important” according to Dowden and Andrews.

These parallels between schools and community corrections should not be surprising, as both educators with problem students and probation and parole officers with offenders are attempting to change behavior.

They have looked to the same basic research to ascertain “what works” and have found most of the same principles are applicable in both arenas.

It is also interesting that there are pockets of effective implementation of violence reduction programs in schools around the country, but few school districts have been able to take the implementation to scale, in all schools in a district.

The implementation of effective programs in large organizations, whether violence reduction in schools or EBP in probation and parole, involves changing the organization's culture.

This is notoriously difficult to accomplish, takes time, energy and a strong commitment by leadership. But it can be done if the will is there. Again, we can learn from another field, in this case medicine.

The field of medicine has been the focus of a great deal of efforts with evidence-based practices. The finding that some 100,000 people die each year in U.S. hospitals from hospital acquired infections triggered efforts to identify the causes of the infections and prevent them.

It turns out that the infection prevention techniques are well known, but not routinely followed. They were just not a part of the hospital culture. A recent study of Veterans Health Administration hospitals showed that hospital cultures can be changed and infection rates reduced dramatically.

The study found that infections in intensive care units dropped 62 percentand in other units, they were down by 45 percent when staff followed established infection reduction practices.

Such improvements require a broad mobilization of staff within an organization. As noted above, culture change has to involve staff at all levels and positions pursuing a common vision and supporting one another.

While some might suggest that such significant change is easier to accomplish in hospitals where human lives are at stake, I would suggest that both the work of educators and community corrections is also a matter of life and death. Kids in violent schools are at risk of injury or death, and will be increasingly likely to get involved in crime and violence if they leave a school that is dangerous.

Offenders under community supervision fail at an alarmingly high rate ( Pew_ State_of_ Recidivism.pdf), creating new victims and often becoming a victim themselves.

Implementing proven programs in both schools and community corrections not only makes sense, it is indeed a matter of life and death. We should need no greater motivation to get to work.

William D. Burrell is a regular blogger for The Crime Report. Burrell is an independent corrections management consultant specializing in community corrections and evidence-based practices. From 2003 to 2007, he was a member of the faculty in the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University in Philadelphia. Prior to joining the Temple faculty, Bill served for nineteen years as chief of adult probation services for the New Jersey state court system. Bill is chairman of the Editorial Committee for Perspectives, the journal of the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA) and serves on APPA's Board of Directors. He has consulted, and developed and delivered training for probation and parole agencies at the federal, state and county levels. He welcomes reader comments.

[1] Dowden, C., & Andrews, D.A. (2004). The importance of staff practice in delivering correctional treatment: A meta-analysis review of core correctional practice. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 48(2), 203-214.

Comments are closed.