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Chapter 1: Social Science Research (Probation and Supervised Release Conditions)

The major theories and perspectives on the causes and most effective ways to reduce crime have been classified in various ways. The most established theories and perspectives include:

  1. Principles of Effective Correctional Intervention

    1. Social science research has consistently demonstrated that some approaches to correctional intervention are more effective at reducing recidivism. In particular, researchers emphasize that effective interventions follow the principles of “risk,” “need,” and “responsivity.”
      1. According to the risk principle, interventions should target those defendants with a higher probability of recidivism. Low-risk defendants may not continue to commit crimes even without intervention.  Additionally, excessive correctional intervention for low-risk defendants may increase the probability of recidivism by disrupting prosocial activities and exposing defendants to antisocial associates. The majority of resources, therefore, should be devoted to higher-risk defendants. The risk level should be determined by actuarial classification instruments that measure static risk and dynamic risk factors.
      2. Under the need principle, correctional interventions should be rooted in empirical knowledge about the sources of criminal conduct and should target known predictors of crime and recidivism that can be changed (also known as “dynamic risk factors” or “criminogenic needs”). Research has shown that criminogenic needs include such characteristics as procriminal cognitions, procriminal social networks, impulsivity, risk-taking, weak problem-solving and self-control skills, substance abuse, and deficits in educational, vocational, and employment skills.
      3. According to the responsivity principle, interventions should be generally responsive, meaning that they should use the treatment modality that is capable of changing the major known predictors of recidivism. Research has demonstrated that the most effective approach is to use cognitive-behavioral techniques. Cognitive-behavioral treatment involves exercises and instructions designed to alter the dysfunctional thinking patterns exhibited by many defendants. In addition to being generally responsive, correctional interventions must also be delivered in a style and mode that is specifically responsive to the learning styles and abilities of defendants. Depending on their characteristics (e.g., intelligence, levels of anxiety), defendants may have different learning styles and thus respond more readily to some techniques than to others.
  2. Social Learning Theory
    1. According to social learning theory, social interactions differentially expose individuals to learning environments conducive to illegal conduct. Different social interactions shape thoughts that are negative or positive toward criminal behavior or that are neutralizing in the sense that they encourage offending by justifying or excusing it. Once internalized, these thoughts continue to regulate people’s decisions.
    2. People can also become involved in crime through imitation – that is, modeling criminal conduct. Once people have initial forays into crime through both thoughts and imitation, they continue criminal acts through social reinforcements – rewards and punishment. The continued involvement depends on exposure to social reinforcements that reward this activity.
  3. Social Control Theory
    1. According to social control theory, control is sustained by individuals’ continuing relationship with the conventional order – by their bonds to family, school, work, everyday activities, and beliefs.
    2. As social bonds strengthen, “social capital” rises. Social capital is the resource produced by the quality of relationships between people (e.g., social support, contacts for jobs). Such capital furnishes resources that can be used to solve problems. For example, when an individual finds a job or a healthy relationship, social bonds can develop, social capital can be produced, and constraints previously absent from a person’s life can become controlling.
  4. Opportunity Theories
    1. According to opportunity theories, for a criminal event to occur, two ingredients must converge in time and space. First, there must be a person motivated to commit a criminal act. Second, the person must have the opportunity to commit a crime. Opportunity theories focus on the second ingredient.
    2. The effectiveness of community supervision will be increased to the extent that probation officers systematically work with persons on supervision, family and community members, and law enforcement agencies to reduce the extent to which individuals on supervision come into contact with opportunities for crime.
      1. Probation officers may try to disrupt activities that increase crime opportunities for persons on supervision. For instance, probation officers may seek to prohibit contact with specific people (e.g., past co-offenders), traveling on specific streets, and access to specific establishments (e.g., bars where interpersonal conflict often ensues).
      2. Probation officers might also attempt to replace criminal opportunities with preferred alternatives. This process might involve officers “brokering” prosocial activities – that is, developing activities in the community or at home to lead persons on supervision away from crime opportunities.
      3. Probation officers may attempt to enlist a defendant’s family, prosocial friends, and community members (e.g., minister, teacher) to assist in designing an opportunity reduction plan. Beyond those personally affiliated with persons on supervision, probation officers might develop relationships with other members of the community – from bartenders, to store owners, to parking lot attendants, to security guards, to police officers. These community members could be used to contact probation officers when defendants are entering locations where, in the past, there has been criminal activity. It might be possible to secure their assistance to help monitor when a specific defendant enters specific places.
      4. Probation officers monitor defendants through phone calls and personal contacts; monitor defendants through contacting others, including family members, employers, and treatment providers; and manage any risk they pose to individuals or the community by verifying their employment, monitoring their associates, restricting their travel, and taking other actions to make sure they are obeying the law.


D.A. Andrews & James Bonta, The Psychology of Criminal Conduct, Matthew Bender & Company, Inc. (2010).

Francis Cullen & Cheryl Johnson, “Rehabilitation and Treatment Programs” in Crime and Public Policy (pp: 293-344). J.Q. Wilson and J. Petersilia (Eds.), Oxford University Press (2011).

Francis Cullen, John Eck, & Christopher Lowenkamp, “Environmental Corrections – A New Paradigm for Effective Probation and Parole Supervision,” Federal Probation (September 2002).

Robert Lilly, Francis Cullen, & Richard A. Ball, Criminological Theory: Context and Consequences, Sage Publications (2002).

Doris MacKenzie, What Works in Corrections: Reducing the Criminal Activities of Offenders and Delinquents, Cambridge University Press (2006).

Lawrence Sherman et al., Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising: A Report to the United States Congress. 1997. Washington, DC, National Institute of Justice, available at: