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Using Evidence-Based Strategies to Protect Communities

Federal probation officers have always tried to bring about positive life change in the lives of people under supervision, whether it’s helping them get a job, get into drug treatment, or even acquire better decision-making skills. In today’s technology-driven world, officers are also employing increasingly sophisticated research and data analysis tools in their supervision plans.

This year, the federal Probation and Pretrial Services system is celebrating the 10-year mark of what it calls Research to Results, a program that provides funding and technical assistance to probation and pretrial offices around the country to adopt state-of-the-art, evidence-based practices in supervision. And the signs are encouraging.

Recidivism in the federal system is down, as measured by rearrest and revocation rates and adjusted for comparable levels of risk. (Levels of risk are based on criminal history, current thinking patterns and value systems, social networks, employment and educational status, and involvement with drugs and alcohol.) See Figure 1.

In particular, high-risk offenders have shown marked improvement in education and employment levels, lowered substance abuse, and more positive social networks while under supervision – all indicators that have been shown to reduce the recurrence of crime. See Figure 2.

The successes coincided with a greater reliance on evidence-based practices, with officers focusing not just on process and the number of visits with offenders or services provided, but also on sophisticated analyses of outcomes.

Officers use cutting-edge actuarial risk-assessment tools to determine whether their work has resulted in an offender becoming less likely to commit a new crime or violate the terms of his or her probation. They also prioritize services, determining for instance whether drug treatment or psychological counseling would be more likely to have an impact on future behavior.  People at higher risk of recidivism get more time and attention and third-party resources during their supervision, such as drug treatment, job training, and counseling using behavioral change techniques.

Advances in social science, pressure from Congress to spend money more effectively, and the public’s demands for lower crime rates were all drivers of the transformation to evidence-based practices. More sophisticated data tools and computer software also were coming on the market, creating an expectation that results of supervision should be concrete and measurable.

 “One of the things I routinely say to defendants is, the probation officer is your best friend, they are trying to keep you out of jail. That makes them see the probation officer in a new light,” said Judge Ricardo S. Martinez, of Seattle, the chair of the Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States.

He noted that an important facet of the program is tailoring supervision techniques to the specifics of a case and the responsiveness of the person under supervision.  The approach, he notes, couples the best of science and professional judgement.

 “What we’ve learned is, we need to switch to things that will have very specific outcomes we can analyze and then adapt if we need to,” Martinez said. “It turns out maybe there are different ways of motivating people that lead to behavioral change, that can lead to people becoming positive citizens.”

Ten years ago, the federal court system provided seed money to 18 probation and pretrial offices around the country to transition to a greater reliance on evidence-based practices and measuring their results. Those offices then shared their experiences and expertise with others around the country, and the Judiciary provided resources for additional offices to make the same transition. The goal was to become more of a results-based system that supported behavior change in offenders and defendants as a means of protecting the public.

To qualify for funding, district offices had to produce a plan showing how they would do effective risk and needs assessments of individuals on supervision, and they were encouraged to examine and measure their results.

Officers worked to get offenders back into school or into the workforce. They tried to mitigate exposure to poor influences and social networks. They were taught cognitive behavioral techniques, or such treatment was contracted out to third-party providers in the community. They were trained in interviewing techniques with demonstrated success in helping change problem behavior, most notably substance abuse.

Matthew Rowland, the chief of the Judiciary’s Office of Probation and Pretrial Services, said, “It has been amazing to see the positive impact of technology and research in the hands of talented court personnel.  We are seeing both promising new techniques and ‘tried and true’ practices, some dating back to the formation of our system, optimized to produce fewer crime victims, produce more restitution, and help people under supervision be assets rather than liabilities to society, themselves and their families. It is a very exciting time.”

Judge Martinez said, “We absolutely plan to continue the emphasis on evidence-based practices. The reason is pretty simple. It works. What we do now is based on tried-on-true research, with demonstrated results. It’s systematic, it’s orderly, it’s logical and it can be replicated. I think the results speak for themselves.”

Related Topics: Probation and Pretrial Services