Parole and probation officer stress.

DC Public Safety Radio

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Leonard Sipes: From the nation’s capitol, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen, by our microphones today, Lorenzo Hopkins. He’s supervisory community supervision officer known elsewhere as a supervisory-prone probation agent from my agency, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, Lorenzo, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Lorenzo Hopkins: Thank you for having me, Len.

Leonard Sipes: Today’s topic is parole and probation officer stress. As far as I’m concerned, this is one of the most ignored topics that you can possibly imagine. I see all the time. I witness all the effort to deal with police officer stress and that’s a mighty subject. We know what’s been happening throughout the country over the course of the last six months, and in terms of fully integrating law enforcement in the community and the controversy that that has entailed. Everybody’s looking at police officers. Nobody’s looking at the stress of parole and probation agents. Am I correct or incorrect?

Lorenzo Hopkins: You’re correct, Leonard. I’ve been in this business for over twenty years, and I’ve seen it change. What I mean by that is, probation and purple agents are asked to do more. The government is talking about reducing the prison population, which is going to mean more people coming back on community supervision. When you have that, you’re going to have those increased stressors. Again, some of the prison criminal probation population is getting more and more violent. They’re getting younger. I’ve seen the national trend. DC, again you can see the shootings went on the street, how young people are getting and our agents are going out into the community in those environments, dealing with people just released from prison, some of them just fresh off of probation. Really, there’s limited to no talk about the stress that they undergo each day.

Leonard Sipes: Now, I have to, just for the sake of grounding the people who are listening to this program, there are five million people caught up in the criminal justice system on any given day in the correctional system. Two million are involved in prisons and jails, which means the bulk are under community supervision with parole and probation agencies. When you talk about correction in America, when you talk about incarceration, when you talk about America’s response to crime, the vast majority of Americans’ response to crime are individuals assigned to parole and probation agents, correct?

Lorenzo Hopkins: That’s correct. We have a huge impact as relates to attempting to reduce [inaudible 00:02:46]. What that entails today was much different than it was when I entered the business over twenty years ago. Back when I first started, you simply received a court order and it told you, “Pay restitution, do community service and things.” We made sure they did that. We’ve since transitioned CBI, cognitive behavior intervention, motivational interviewing. Now you’re going to take those four thousand people, most agencies have trended that way, and instead of checking boxes saying they’re completed, no. You have to actually change behavior and change thinking patterns.

Leonard Sipes: When I was first involved in the correctional system and we’re talking about a quarter of a century ago, I was told by parole and probation for the agency that I represented, which was the Maryland Department of Public Safety, that our role in parole and probation is to enforce the will of the court and enforce the will of the parole commission. That was it. It wasn’t talking about changing individuals. It wasn’t talking about intervening in their lives. It wasn’t talking about providing them with the support they needed to deal with their substance abuse, deal with their mental health issues, deal with their reunification of their children. It was simply to enforce the will of the parole commission and enforce the will of the courts.

Now, as you’ve just said, it’s much more than that. What we have to do is to intervene, is to get into the lives of individuals under community supervision to find out what makes them tick, what makes them angry, what their issues are, what their hopes and dreams are and try to provide wrap-around programs to support that individual. The mission of being a parole and probation agent has changed dramatically just within the last ten years.

Lorenzo Hopkins: Certainly it has. What hasn’t changed is the fact that we’re still required to put public safety first. That’s primary, but I would say our biggest job now is being change agents, meeting a person where they are, CBI.

Leonard Sipes: Cognitive-

Lorenzo Hopkins: Cognitive behavior intervention. Right.

Leonard Sipes: Cognitive behavioral intervention.

Lorenzo Hopkins: Yes. What happens is, we used to just take people and say, “Okay, the court says you need to go substance abuse treatment.” Now, you have to say, “Is that person ready to go to substance abuse treatment?” If that person is not ready, you’re wasting money. That’s what research has shown. If you make a person just go to treatment for the sake of going to treatment, they will program, as we call it. They will go through a program, complete it just to satisfy it. They still have the same cognitive thinking, the negative thinking that they used to have and eventually they go back to using.

Leonard Sipes: Okay, well let’s talk a little bit about the people under supervision before we get onto parole and probation agent stress. The vast majority of people under supervision have histories of substance abuse, and in many cases, really raging histories of substance abuse. I’ve seen surveys where up to fifty percent of the offender population have histories of mental health problems, lack of job history, did not do well in school, many with anti-social attitudes. If you talk to women caught up in the criminal justice system as I have before these microphones, the great majority have had histories of sexual violence directed at them as children, as teenagers by people they know. The point is that they bring an awful lot of baggage to the table. Suddenly they come and they sit in front of Lorenzo Hopkins and Lorenzo Hopkins has got to somehow, some way, break through all those barriers, deal with all of the issues that that person brings to the table, and do it in such a way that does not make him crazy, correct?

Lorenzo Hopkins: That’s correct, because right now when we talk about dealing with the substance abuses you spoke about, and I’m glad you prefaced it by the other issues, the trauma and things of that nature, for years, when I say “we,” parole and probation, we’ve treated the symptom. The symptom was substance abuse. We never really got to that underlying trauma.

A brief story. I was briefly assigned to the mental health branch as a supervisor. I had this older lady, mid fifties, maybe. She was a heroin user for years. She and I had a conversation and she kept getting violated. That’s when the parole commission, if you violated substance abuse, you will get violated and go back and go back under supervision, correct. I sat her down one day in my office and said, “Tell me what’s going on.” She said, “You’re the first person who asked me about what’s going on instead of just saying, ‘You need to stop using heroin.'” Then she went to a story about being sexually molested as a child and all those things. I’m like, “Wow, if we don’t treat that trauma, we’re going to fail with substance abuse.

Leonard Sipes: You know, we’ve increased our rate of successful completions here at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency from about sixty-two to about sixty-nine percent. Our rearrest rates have been down, as of late. Obviously, we’re moving in the right direction, but we have a fifty to one case load. I know of parole and probation agents in various states that have a hundred to one, a hundred and fifty, two hundred to one, and more. When you’re carrying a case load of a hundred and fifty to two hundred individuals caught up in the criminal justice system, it doesn’t strike me as that person having a snowball’s chance in Hades of actually breaking through those barriers and to meaningly intervene in the lives of the human beings under supervision. If they’re talking about doing cognitive behavioral therapy, as you’ve said, getting into the heart and soul as to why people are doing certain things and training them as to how to deal with those problems, when you have a case load of two hundred to one that seems to me to be impossible.

Lorenzo Hopkins: It’s extremely difficult and that’s where a lot of stress come in. Even with case loads in DC being fifty to one, if you could imagine. Let me put you in a probation officer’s seat on a reporting day. On reporting day, let’s say it’s Thursday. You may have thirty of your people coming in on that day for drug testing, to speak to you. Could you imagine hearing thirty different trauma stories every day and the kind of stress you would take home with you every day?

Leonard Sipes: That’s just it! Half of our contacts need to be made in the community. You could be walking through the community and see your person under supervision. You could be going into their home. It could be a surprise visit. You could be taking along a police officer with you. All you’re hearing all day long is trauma, trauma, trauma, correct?

Lorenzo Hopkins: That’s absolutely correct.

Leonard Sipes: How do you escape that?

Lorenzo Hopkins: The thing is typically most people don’t. They don’t recognize it. That’s one thing I talk to my staff about right now, even being in diagnostics. People think that they are the report writers. They don’t have to hear. They don’t have to see the finish. Could you imagine interviewing someone at the local jail, even someone at the office, and they’re telling you about the trauma they’ve suffered, the sexual abuse they’ve suffered, standard sibling murder, their mother mother murdered, and you read that day in and day out? That’s secondary trauma and I don’t think people pay much attention to secondary trauma.

Leonard Sipes: If you’re going to get into the heart and soul of that person, if you’re going to use cognitive behavioral therapy and intervene in the life of that person, you’ve got to somehow, some way, take on the emotions that that person is talking about. It cannot be just, “I dismiss it at the end of the day. I’m going to go home and have a beer and walk the dog and play with the kids.” That trauma stays with you. It’s inevitable that that trauma is going to stay with you to some degree.

Lorenzo Hopkins: Well, to be human, it has to. The problem, Len, is a lot of people don’t know what the symptoms look like. They think going home and just having a beer or two is normal. That could be their way of coping. You’ve seen research about law enforcement professionals, correction officers. They end up with substance abuse problems, drugs, and alcohol to cope.

Leonard Sipes: There are higher rates, I’ve seen, of substance abuse amongst people in our profession than in terms of the larger society.

Lorenzo Hopkins: Absolutely, because that’s a coping mechanism. Some people can’t sleep at night. Look at the divorce rate among people in our profession also, because you take things home.

A quick story. Before I started working in probation and parole, I worked as administrator at a juvenile detention facility. I went home after hearing this stuff and seeing these kids every single day who weren’t doing well. You know what I did?

Leonard Sipes: What?

Lorenzo Hopkins: I was a young married guy and I said, “I don’t want any children.” Seriously. My wife said, “Honey, are you serious? These are just the children you see. All children aren’t like that.” I tell that story to say when you are starting to become jaded in this business, you start to become skeptical of everyone.

Leonard Sipes: It takes its toll on you. I’ve always said after forty-five years in the criminal justice system, I’ve become acidic. I see the world differently than the average person because I understand bands in humanity towards man. We had a woman at a conference one time dealing with women caught up in the criminal justice system who stood up in the conference and said, “The woman I live with pulled a knife on me last night and pulled a knife on me and my child and we had a huge argument. I had to get out of there. I now have no place to live. I now have a child and I now have to go back and get my private possessions out of this apartment from a woman who pulled a knife on me.” Then she took a look at everybody in the hall and said, “Now, what are you going to do for me to help me out of this situation?” That’s what our people deal with every single day, correct?

Lorenzo Hopkins: That’s correct. When you have young officers just into the business, or even some more seasoned ones, if you get that every day, you’re in, I call it crisis mode every day because you never know what’s going to happen.

Again, before I went to diagnostics and mental health, I had my day planned out most days but it never failed. Someone came in. They started to decompensate. One of my staff and I had to take them to the CPAP, for the condition they’re dealing with [inaudible 00:13:39] medicine to admit them. Your days are not yours. Then, you run into another stressor is, when you try to get help, as you talked about the young lady at the meeting you were at, take that and multiply that by decreasing city budgets and town budgets when there really is no housing out there.

Leonard Sipes: Right. Yeah, finding housing for people caught up in the criminal justice system is really difficult.

Lorenzo Hopkins: Absolutely, and then you try to put them in a shelter. The shelter could be full. Then you have women and children, which is another difficulty trying to place because there are limited resources.

Leonard Sipes: My phone number is the only phone number on the website and I get calls at night. I get calls on the weekends. “Why is my son on probation? Why did my son was taken to jail? What’s happening with my son? He was supposed to go to this rehab clinic and he’s not doing well. Now he’s out. Are you guys going to get a warrant for his arrest?” There’s a certain point. It’s like, “Folks! I can’t just do this every night. I can’t do it every weekend. I’ve got my own life to live,” but you can’t tell them, “No.” You cannot not listen to them. If I’m experiencing that and I’m the spokesperson for the agency, what are you all going through?

Lorenzo Hopkins: Well, that’s a huge stressor. When I first left mental health and went to diagnostics, my staff at my first meeting were saying, “Well, Mister Hopkins, we’re working on weekends and evenings trying to get these reports done.” I said, “That stops today.”

Leonard Sipes: Yes.

Lorenzo Hopkins: “That stops today, because I understand that you have to have healthy work-life balance. That’s extremely important in this business because what happens is, I found myself doing it late. I’m not telling you something I’m thinking of or guessing about. I found myself with my Blackberry on at my child’s karate meeting contest.

Leonard Sipes: Yes, yes, yes.

Lorenzo Hopkins: I found myself checking the newspaper to see if a defendant was ever arrested. What do I have to face tomorrow?”

Leonard Sipes: Every time somebody goes out and commits a homicide or commits a crime, you’re sitting there going, “Oh my God, I hope he’s not on my case load.”

Lorenzo Hopkins: Exactly! You take your eight hour day, just an average eight hour day, and you go home and you take it home with you. That’s twenty-four hours a day besides the time you’re sleeping that you’re dealing with something about seeing so-and-so or about this profession.

Leonard Sipes: Well, we’re halfway through the program. I do want to reintroduce you, ladies and gentlemen. We’re talking to Lorenzo Hopkins, a supervisory community supervision officer with my agency, our agency, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, We’re talking about parole and probation officer stress.

Lorenzo, you went to the American Probation and Parole Association in Los Angeles and you gave a seminar on parole and probation officer stress. What are the key points of your address in Los Angeles dealing with a national audience on this topic?

Lorenzo Hopkins: Well, one thing we have to realize is that, and I actually said it like this, oftentimes in this business, we take far too much credit for peoples’ success and far too much blame for their failures. We’re always looking at something that, “Well, did I do this or did I do that?” We try to be but we are human and you can’t be everything to everyone. That’s one. Two, when you leave your work and you’re not on duty, the biggest mistake people make is leave that cell phone or Blackberry on. They check it religiously. I told them in LA that actually it’s an addiction. It’s an addiction because you find yourself in conversations with people. You’re checking your work phone. When that occurs, you’re actually cheating your family because your family deserves some you time.

Leonard Sipes: Some work-life balance.

Lorenzo Hopkins: Right. You also deserve some time away because you can’t continue at that pace. You can’t. You’ll be surprised how many people, Len, that work for me that I have to make take vacation. What you get to carry over in the government two hundred forty hours, or whatever the case may be?

Leonard Sipes: Yup!

Lorenzo Hopkins: I’m sitting down with them doing a life plan. “You need to take off some days.”

Leonard Sipes: I do want to emphasize this, is that our rate at successes here at Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency is going up, so we are succeeding in getting people to do the right thing. I understand that there’s no such thing as the perfect offender on supervision. I understand that they all bring a tremendous amount of issues with them, in particular, substance abuse. We have done a better job. We have been able to get into the lives of individuals. We’ve gotten into the lives of their families. We have helped them deal with all the different things they had to deal with to the point where our success rate is going up. What toll is that taking on what we call community supervision officers?

Lorenzo Hopkins: It’s taking a tremendous toll. We talked about earlier, we put a lot of effort into CBI, cognitive behavior intervention, motivational interviewing, things that change the thinking of the defender or defendant population. The problem is, as you alluded to earlier, there’s not a lot of research or anything about people who actually do the work. We have to really start to think, as managers, I’m a supervisor, take a look at your people and start speaking to them about how are things impacting them.

Leonard Sipes: Your employees, yes?

Lorenzo Hopkins: Yeah, my employees. You have to start talking to your employees the same way you want them to invest in the defender population, you must invest in them.

Leonard Sipes: You’ve got to do the same thing for them.

Lorenzo Hopkins: You have to, because guess what. A lot of these ladies and gentlemen are young.

Leonard Sipes: Right.

Lorenzo Hopkins: They’re young. Half of that stuff they’re reading about or talking to the defenders about, they haven’t lived it.

Leonard Sipes: It’s interesting. They are college educated. Everybody comes to us with a bachelor’s degree. The great majority of our agency have master’s degrees. Some have above. That’s a very well-educated workforce that we have, but they’re still people. Regardless of their education, regardless of their understanding, regardless of their grounding, they’re still people subject to the same levels of stress as any police officer, as anybody in any profession.

Lorenzo Hopkins: That’s true, Len, because you alluded to the national epidemic what’s going on between law enforcement and many communities. In that whole conversation, you don’t hear people talking about probation and parole because guess what, we’re in the community also. We’re there daily. We’re engaging people in conversations, so a police officer’s law enforcement. We’re law enforcement also, so that same sense of heightened expectations and anxiety when we go into some of the worst neighborhoods in our cities is there. It’s natural. The hair stands up on the back of your neck.

Leonard Sipes: It rubs off on everybody, whether you’re a police officer or whether you’re a parole and probation agent. The trauma that you deal with, you could not simply separate that from your life. There’s just no clean break. You’ve got to acknowledge the fact that this exists.

Lorenzo Hopkins: Right, and that’s why it’s imperative on partners being partners. When you have a partnership with people you work with, if your supervisor doesn’t do it, look out for your colleague. Look out for your co-worker. You can see when they’re under undue stress. You can speak to them about it. Most of our friends, let’s be honest, in law enforcement, you’ve been in law enforcement a long time, they’re other law enforcement people. Guess what we talk about when we go out.

Leonard Sipes: Oh yeah!

Lorenzo Hopkins: The job.

Leonard Sipes: We sit there and we gripe about the criminal justice system. We gripe about those idiots at headquarters, and I always laugh because then I became an idiot at headquarters as a spokesperson for, again, Maryland Department of Public Safety. The point is is that we sat there and we griped and we drank too much.

Lorenzo Hopkins: There was no release.

Leonard Sipes: We drank too much.

Lorenzo Hopkins: Right.

Leonard Sipes: I’m not quite sure when I went home from one of these drinking-too-much, griping-too-much sessions, I’m not quite sure I felt a whole heck of a lot better.

Lorenzo Hopkins: No, because guess what. If you’re anything like I used to be when I entered the business is that I still thought about, well come the other night, thought about, “Did I do this? Did I do that? Maybe I should have done this differently.”

Leonard Sipes: Because we are talking about the lives of people in crisis and there’s no way of leaving that behind. You have to acknowledge that, deal with it, and come to grips with the tools that help you cope with it. Alcohol or drugs certainly is not part of that coping mechanism.

Lorenzo Hopkins: Right, and you have to have balance. When I talk about work-life balance, work-life balance isn’t splitting time between work and life. Work-life balance is what’s important to you. If you’re a person who loves playing golf, make some time. Take some time out of your week to play some golf.

Leonard Sipes: Yup, play that golf.

Lorenzo Hopkins: You deserve that, because you need a release. If you’re not going to release it doing something you enjoy, you’re going to release it doing something destructive, i.e. drinking too much.

Leonard Sipes: Okay, now what I was told years ago, I was told when I entered in the law enforcement, take meditation. Take classes on meditation. Learn how to meditate. I was taught to talk to your spouse. A lot of us, when we bring work home, when we come home we don’t want to talk about work. The last thing in the world we want to talk about is work. If you’re in a bad mood and if you’re affected by your experiences throughout the course of the day, you owe it to your spouse to tell your spouse what’s going on. There are tools for coping.

Lorenzo Hopkins: Absolutely, Len. We do the same thing in my household. I’ve been in this business a long time. My wife and I give each other fifteen minutes apiece to vent about work, to decompress.

Leonard Sipes: Oh, that’s a great idea.

Lorenzo Hopkins: After that … huh, it’s over. You have to have that because she understands that my job is stressful. She’s an accountant but she also has those stressors also and she needs to understand, “If my husband comes home in a not-so-good mood what’s going on out there.” Certainly, we don’t use names because that’s privacy, but we also are human because you can’t take it. We’d like to take your hat off when you get home and that’s all I’m thinking about, home. Our lives blur and they blend all the time.

Leonard Sipes: Sure. Well, it’s like the woman who I talked to one time about her history of sexual abuse and she just said, “You know, I was raped multiple times before the age of eighteen by family members and people who I know, who I knew.” Then she just looked at me in front of the same microphone you’re sitting in front of now and said, “Now, what is the system going to do for me in terms of my trauma?” It’s like, “One human being. Excuse me. I can’t undo the fact that you were raped multiple times before the age of eighteen.” That’s what our folks go through every single day.

Lorenzo Hopkins: Right, and the difference is though, we have to get to the point where we recognize when we’ve had too much. I’m not talking about retiring, I’m talking about taking leave. I’m talking about making sure you have your supervisor having your people schedule leave before the end of the year, because they need some time away and apart to spend with their family. I encourage it. When I speak to my staff at mid-year or whenever, I talk about work-life balance. What are you doing for you and you family? What are you doing to improve yourself outside of work? That way, I keep that in the forefront of their mind to let them know it’s not only about work, you know?

Leonard Sipes: Mm-hmm (affirmative), but you can tell in law enforcement because the person becomes too aggressive.

Lorenzo Hopkins: Yes.

Leonard Sipes: You can tell it when the person apprehends somebody and instead of just cuffing them, they’re slammed against the police car and that’s the point where you’ve got to walk over, and we did, whether people believe it or not, walk over to that person and say, “You know, Johnny, you’re taking this too far. You need to back off. Do you want me to finish this?” What do you see in terms of parole and probation agents?

Lorenzo Hopkins: Well, typically what happens when I see stress is they’re short-tempered. When I’m short-tempered, I don’t mean exploding but their conversation is about evil in the defendant or defender population, you can tell they’ve become certainly desensitized. “I’m going to start going through the motions like a robot,” you know? “I’m just going to do the job because I have to, but I’m not really caring.” People can feel when you don’t care. When it gets to the point where it starts to become not a good situation, I typically have the defendant wait, if I hear it from my staff, pull them aside, and say, “Hey, decompress. Take a deep breath and just relax a little bit,” because sometimes we have to recognize the symptoms. Not us, because if I don’t sometimes you don’t see yourself in this situation.

Leonard Sipes: Yes.

Lorenzo Hopkins: As colleagues, we have to make sure we’re paying more attention to what’s going on because you’re going to start saying, “Offenders, stop coming in.”

Leonard Sipes: That hurts the mission. That hurts the bottom line in the same way that the police officer being overly aggressive hurts the bottom line because he’s breaking confidence with the community. We, on the front lines, you all on the front lines whether you be parole and probation agents or whether you be police officers, people need to understand how unbelievably stressful these jobs are. People need to provide some space, work-life balance, and some tools in terms of whether it’s deep breathing exercises, whether it’s meditation, whether it’s talking to your wife, whether it’s playing that game of golf, everybody needs to come to grips when that stress is enormous. That stress exists in all folks caught up in the criminal justice system.

Lorenzo Hopkins: Right. I think what gets lost when you’re talking about probation and parole professionals, that’s what I like to call us, is that we wear so many hats, because you’ve got to realize we’re the person who, in most jurisdictions they can have arrest powers. This one, you do reports. Actually, it’s also your responsibility to be able to take someone’s freedom. They gave it to you, more or less. However, however, but what we have to really start to understand is that people who do that are humans and they don’t want to take peoples’ freedom. When you start dealing with non-compliance, it doesn’t make people happy so when you go that house the next time to do a visit, how are going to be received? You don’t know that. Because guess what, that person just got released from prison after you did a report that got him sent back for two or three years.

Leonard Sipes: Right, right, right, but that’s the part of the stress and part of the dilemma of being a parole and probation agent, again what we call community supervision officers here in the District of Columbia, is that cognitive intervention, you’ve got to get into the mind, get into the heart of that person. Build bond. Build trust, but at the same time, you have that responsibility to protect public safety and send them back to prison, if necessary.

Lorenzo Hopkins: Absolutely.

Leonard Sipes: No therapist on the face of the earth would work under those circumstances.

Lorenzo Hopkins: Could you imagine wearing all those hats?

Leonard Sipes: No.

Lorenzo Hopkins: Because you’re a social worker one day, no, not one day, one second. The next second, you’re saying, “Oh, you’re violated. This is unacceptable. I’ve got to put a VR, a violation report in.” Those are those fine balances that a lot of people don’t understand. The difference between us and police officers, again, great work. A police officer can arrest someone on the street. They throw them into the court and that’s it. That’s it.

Leonard Sipes: And walk away from that, entirely. You’ve got them for the next five years.

Lorenzo Hopkins: I have to deal with that. If they go in and out, in and out, I’m still the person who’s there.

Leonard Sipes: You’ve got to deal with them for the next five years, which is stressful unto itself. Lorenzo Hopkins, I’ll tell you. This has been a fascinating conversation. Lorenzo is a supervisory community supervision officer for my agency, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. We’ve talking today, ladies and gentlemen, about parole and probation agent stress. Lorenzo, I really want to thank you for a fascinating conversation. Ladies and gentlemen, our website,, This is DC Public Safety. We appreciate your comments and we even appreciate your criticisms, as stressful as they may be. We want everybody to have themselves a very pleasant day. Thank-


The Challenge of Parole and Probation from an Officer’s Perspective.

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Leonard: From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety. I am your host, Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen, The Challenge of Parole and Probation from an Officer’s Perspective. At our microphones today, David Mauldin, he is a Community Supervision Officer, known elsewhere as a Parole and Probation Agent, and Keith Cromer, again, a Community Supervision Officer, again, known elsewhere throughout the country as a Parole and Probation Agent. Our agency, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, David and Keith, welcome to DC Public Safety.

David: Thank you very much.

Keith: Good afternoon.

David: [crosstalk 00:00:39] to be here.

Leonard: Gentlemen, what a tough job. We’re here to talk about the challenge of parole and probation agents, again, what we call community supervision officers in the nation’s capital. I cannot think of a more challenging job. I’ve been in the criminal justice system for 45 years. I’ve been a cop, I’ve been a spokesperson, I’ve ran group decades ago, within the prison system. I did Job Corps, where the judge said to the young individuals, “Go to jail and go to Job Corps.” I’ve done a lot of what it is that you guys do, but it’s a long time ago. I found that being a cop was simple, being a parole and probation agent was a thousand times harder than being a police officer. Am I right or wrong?

David: I would definitely agree with that. Our job is unique in a sense that we’ve got multiple roles in it. We have a client/offender/person under supervision come to our office, and we are given all of these resources to provide them. We’re encouraged to provide motivation and counseling, and we should, that should be part of our role, but at the same time, there’s another side to what we do, which is, if the supervision, if what is expected of the person is not occurring, if they’re not responding to the resources and directives we’re giving them, then there’s this side of our job, which we end up in court.

We write a violation report, and we can find ourselves in front of a judge recommending that the person’s freedom be taken away, the very same person sometimes where maybe even a few weeks earlier, you were sitting down and talking with them about really powerful reasons why they fell into a life of crime and you were trying to counsel them. Sometime, I know for myself, it can seem a sudden switch, and I’m sure for the clients as well, it can be like, “Wait a minute, you were just encouraging me and counseling me and now you just requested that my freedom be taken away.” It’s a hard balance.

Leonard: When I ran group, I was told not to tell anybody I was an ex-cop, ran group in the prison system and doing a cognitive-behavioral therapy group session. I did end up telling people that I was a former cop, and the people who were part of the group said, “I wish you hadn’t told us that, because now we don’t trust you.” Keith, most of the people caught up in the criminal justice system are not trusting human beings. How do you break through that barrier when you’re there to get into their heads, help them deal with their lives in a pro-social way, but at the same time, you hold the authority to send them back to prison if necessary?

Keith: It takes a lot of time. It takes effort to get to know the individual on a one-on-one basis. They’re not willing to come forth all the information that you might need in the first couple of meetings, so you got to keep pushing towards to know exactly what their needs are in order for them to trust you. You want to try to get to know their families, their kids, their needs for employment, their needs for education. At that point in time, they start trying to break down barriers and allowing them to know you, to allow them to know who you are.

Leonard: The whole idea is … Our successful case completions keep going up and up and up, so we’re doing something right. We’re well above the national average in terms of successful case completions, so we’re doing something right. We’re helping men and women overcome extraordinary barriers. When I say extraordinary barriers, we’re talking about massive substance abuse, we’re talking about mental health issues. The substance abuse, 80% of our population, the mental health can go, in terms of self-reported, mental health can go as high as 50% according to some surveys, so we have problems.

When individuals come to us, they come to us with not much of a work history, not much of an educational history. Women who come out of prison, they have higher rates of substance abuse, higher rates of mental health, their backgrounds typically involve being sexually abused by somebody they knew when they were children, and they have children themselves. There’s a certain point where the deck is so stacked against the individuals, not necessarily just in the District of Columbia, but throughout the country. I’ve had offenders sit there and tell me, “Leonard, what you’re asking me to do is impossible. I can’t deal with all of the ills of my past life.” That’s why so many individuals were revoked in years past, because they came to us with immense difficulties. David?

David: What was on my mind as you were saying all of that is, and maybe I’ll get in trouble for saying this, but I think because the clients can come and often do come to supervision with such an enormous array of issues, I don’t think we can solve all of their problems. Sometimes they come to supervision, they’ve got these special conditions, we’re supposed to help them do their anger management class, drug test, get treatment if they need it, but sometimes I just think that maybe what we need to be focusing on is, by the time that somebody gets done with supervision, have we assisted them ,in whatever way that looks like, but have we assisted them to have the confidence that they can, moving forward, have control over their lives.

I was talking to Cromer on the way here, I got a call from a gentleman just released from incarceration about a week ago crying on the phone because he’s telling me, “I don’t have family, I don’t have food, I don’t have housing, and I’m expected to meet all of these requirements [inaudible 00:06:17] probation and parole. I have no idea how I’m going to do it.” On one hand, I think our job is to look at him and say, “Come into the office, let’s get you connected to our resources,” but I think there’s fundamentally something else going on there that he’s saying, “I don’t feel like I have control.”

My goal is, man, if we can help the men and women who come to us feel that when they leave supervision that they can have an impact, a positive impact on their life, that they can affect positive things in it, I think that would be a positive thing, but meeting every single need they have, I think that’s where, if we don’t realize we can’t meet every need, that’s where burnout can come in. [inaudible 00:06:57].

Leonard: Keith, I’m going to throw this question to you. I’ve interviewed lots of people under supervision by these microphones, hundreds over the course of years, and when I ran public affairs for the Maryland Department of Public Safety, interviewing them there as well. Oftentimes they were telling me that their parole and probation agent, again, in this case, in Washington, D.C., community supervision officer, they would say that their officer was the key, in many senses, of them crossing that bridge from law-breaking behavior to law-abiding behavior, from drugs to no drugs. They would give the credit, in many cases, to the parole and probation agent/community supervision officer as being the person who helped them make that transformation. Is that true? Do community supervision officers here in the District of Columbia, can they make that degree of change in a person’s life?

Keith: Yeah, I believe they can. Actually, one of my offenders in the past has, he crossed over tremendously. He had a plan when he came out and I helped him work his plan together. He wrote his own books, we helped him get it published. He started his own security company. He’s doing really well. I think that we can help out, as long as we continue to help them with their plan. We have to find out exactly what their needs are. As soon as we find out their needs, we can just help them out with moving forward in their lives.

Leonard: You can break through the barriers that they bring to you. I always say, I use the example, the chip on their shoulder the size of Montana. They don’t trust anybody. People listening to this program need to understand that people caught up in the criminal justice system, they may trust their mother, they might trust their mother, they don’t trust you, they don’t trust anybody. They don’t trust the religious leaders, they don’t trust the Governor, they don’t trust the President. They don’t care who it is, they’re not trusting individuals, yet you’ve got to break through those barriers to help that person, right, David?

David: Yeah, we do. I’m thinking, I’m not 100% convinced that … I think the clients know how to trust. I think it’s difficult for them, I think they’re hesitant, but what I found is that whether it’s working here in probation and parole or in [inaudible 00:09:19] Covenant House, working with homeless young adults, I think there’s hesitancy, but as soon as the client sees that this person is willing to listen to where I’ve been, as soon as I see that this person is not assuming that they’ve figured me out, to me, I’ve seen that’s a huge one, don’t assume that we know them. Once they see that willingness to hear who they are, hear where they’ve been, and that we’re willing to listen to maybe where they want to go as we try to develop that plan with them, I’ve found that the trust does come.

Then in my mind it becomes the issue of, okay, so they learn to trust you, then, though, all of their issues are still there, and so how, once you have their trust, how do you keep it, because I think it can be lost very easily, because they’ve been disappointed before, whether by family, the system, themselves, how do you keep that trust, and again, as I was saying earlier, especially in a position where on one hand we can counsel and motivate them, but if things build up where their supervision isn’t going a good direction, we got to take them to court. I feel like I’ve actually lost the trust, and I’m sad to say this, but I think I’ve lost the trust of clients before when I had to take them to court, and my hands were tied, I had to.

Leonard: I do want to explain that, but first of all, a piece of context for people listening throughout the country, our ratios, supervision ratios, are the best in the United States. We have one community supervision officer for 50 people under supervision. I know of states where it’s one to 150. I know of counties where it’s one to 250. I have seen data from jurisdictions where it’s one to 300.

We’re a federal agency, and because we’re a federal agency, we have funding. We do provide substance abuse, very comprehensive substance abuse therapy to 25% of our population who needs it. We have a mental health team, we have learning labs. We have a ton of resources that the average parole and probation agency doesn’t have, but still, even though you’ve got the best circumstances within parole and probation probably within the United States, when I talk to community supervision officers, they remind me that it’s the hardest job that they’ve ever had. That true?

Keith: Yeah, that’s true. Even though we have all those resources, if the individual doesn’t want to take advantage of those resources, it’s not even needed. It’s just we’re sending them to waste their time and waste everybody else’s time, wasting money, because it’s on the individual to really want to move forward in his life and to change and get away from that substance. No matter how much resources that we have, it can go out the door in a heartbeat by just going outside the front door and seeing what’s going on in the community.

Leonard: It’s our job to break through those barriers. It’s our job to convince a person who doesn’t want to participate. It’s our job, with a person who is struggling to participate, to successfully enter his world, her world, and help that person out. How do you help a person out who doesn’t want to be helped out?

Keith: First and foremost, I think they have to establish trust. Once they start trusting who you are, actually think that you have the best need for them, then they’ll start realizing and saying, “Okay, I’m going to go ahead and give this a opportunity and get my substance abuse worked out, get my employment worked out.” Those are the factors that may be having a barrier in their lives. I think this basically boils down to trust.

David: I definitely, yeah, I was shaking my head yes as Keith Cromer was talking, that it’s once the trust is there, then I think someone else too can come into it, that you can help the person experience exposure is what I’m thinking. Oftentimes I think a lot of clients come to parole and probation, at least from my experience in D.C., they come to parole and probation, and their lives have been focused around a specific neighborhood for many, many years, the resources they’re looking to are within that specific neighborhood.

I think there’s some goodness to that, that they feel like they know where they’re from and they can access those resources, but there are so many things in Washington, D.C., and so many opportunities, that once they trust us, that we can encourage them to take advantage of, “Maybe don’t apply for the job right down on your block, why don’t you go downtown and apply for a job?” or, “Don’t go to that GED program down the street, but why don’t you go to the one Uptown?” For those that don’t live here, Uptown’s a different part of D.C. from where Cromer and I work. I think exposure is important, and it can take away some fear to try new things. I think exposure can maybe help clients not stay and keep repeating the same things over and over again.

Leonard: Keith, go ahead. You want to jump in?

Keith: Oh yeah, I was, just get them out of a box. I think a lot of times they’re boxed in and they think they have no way of getting out. I think the opportunities that are around them, a lot of these guys know where these resources are, but they don’t take the opportunity, because I think a lot of times it’s self-doubt, negative-

Leonard: They’re frightened by it.

Keith: Yeah, they’re frightened by it, by the chance.

Leonard: Somebody, a person under supervision, an offender, one time told me, scariest thing that he’s ever done in his life is go through substance abuse treatment, because he had to confront his entire life and the reason why he was so desperately in need of drugs every single day, and that was the scariest thing he’s ever done, because he had to relive everything that propelled him towards substance abuse. Is he right?

David: I would lean towards yes. I was thinking that a lot of the older guys that I have on my caseload, maybe guys in their 50s and 60s, what I’ve found is that they’re more, not all of them, but for the most part, they’re more willing and able to look back on where they’ve been and what they’ve been through, and to demonstrate insight on how it’s affected them. I’ve found that is extremely helpful in their ability to stay out of the system, whereas the younger guys, it’s like Cromer was saying, or like we’ve been saying, that it’s almost too frightening, because if they look at it and accept what’s happened to them, accept what they’ve done, accept what they’ve been through, it could almost paralyze them.

Leonard: We’re halfway through the program, I do want to reintroduce everybody. The Challenge of Parole and Probation from an Officer’s Perspective is a program that I’ve looked forward to doing for quite some time, because I do think the role of parole and probation agents is probably one of the most difficult jobs that you can possibly imagine. David Mauldin, he is a Community Supervision Officer, Keith Cromer, Community Supervision Officer, both with my agency, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency,

Gentlemen, I have two questions. Number one, you’re talking to a national audience, so first of all, what do you want somebody in Des Moines or somebody in Hawaii, 20% of our audience is international, somebody from Europe to know about what it is to be a parole and probation agent?hen the second question after that is, when do we have to revoke and send that person back to prison because of transgressions, problems, new crimes? First of all, in terms of, what do you want people throughout the country to know about being a parole and probation agent? Cromer? Easy question, just simple.

Keith: To be a probation officer, a parole officer, you have to wear multiple hats. You have to b a counselor, a mentor, sometimes their father, their mother, their brother. You have to be a lot of things for them at certain times in their life, and you also have to be law enforcement as well. You have to be able to look them in the eye and tell them exactly what’s going on, and the right time, be on them, be hard on them, and then learn at the same time, break, fall back and say, “Tell me what’s going on. Allow me to cry for you, I’ll cry with you,” and then all at the same time, tell them how to, lift them up and show them how the ways to go to the next level in their lives.

Leonard: If you were dealing with an individual without problems, without substance abuse, without mental health, without educational deficiencies, who had a good job history, who doesn’t have an anger manage problem, who wasn’t abused as a child, if you’re doing that with the best possible person under the best possible circumstances, it would still be an extraordinarily difficult job.

Keith: That is correct. I have found that a lot of those guys have no other outlet, because a lot of people that are around them are negative as well, so they come to my office and speak to me friendlier than anyone, anybody else, so they dump a lot on us, what’s going on in their lives. We have to take that and process it and try and help them stay on a right, narrow path, because even though they’re doing everything correctly in their lives, a lot of times, that negative influence is still around them that they may want to go back to it.

Leonard: Both of you are out in the community, seeing them in the community, seeing them in their homes, going into their homes, talking to their parents, talking to their wives, talking to their children, talking to their grandmothers, right?

Keith: Correct.

Leonard: You’re out in the community, both at that person’s job, in their home, seeing this person in the community on an announced and unannounced basis, correct?

Keith: That’s correct.

Leonard: You roll up on a guy and the guy is standing on the street corner. The guy was fine and everything’s compliant and he’s doing fairly well and he’s getting his GED and he’s getting his plumbing certificate and he’s going to Narcotics Anonymous, and you roll up and he’s smoking a joint sitting on his front porch step with his friends. Now we get around to this issue of revocations. Look, a parole and probation agent from the state of Maryland told me that if you revoked everybody under supervision for smoking a joint on his front porch, there would be no sense in parole and probation, you would just automatically send them back to prison after a day.

David: Yeah. The clients on our caseloads, they’re on drug testing regiments, so we get notifications daily on the results of their drug test.

Leonard: Intensive drug tests.

David: Intensive drug tests. Many of them are on twice a week. If we had to respond with strong, immediate sanctions, taking them back to court every positive drug test, the jails, the prisons, would have even more people in them than they do now.

Leonard: We’d have to build four to five times the amount of prisons-

David: We would.

Leonard: … than we currently have now.

David: Absolutely. The thing is, the way I think about it is, is something becoming a pattern. I had a guy when I first started, he tested positive for cocaine. He had been clean as a whistle prior to that for several months, and then boom, positive for cocaine. Of course, we call him into the office and I sit down with him and I show him the positive and we have a conversation about, first of all, the surprise of it, “You’ve been doing well. Are there any triggers that have come up recently that hadn’t been there for a while?” We try to provide support. He no longer tested positive after that, but if that had become a pattern where it’s cocaine, cocaine, cocaine, cocaine, then we go to treatment. If that didn’t work, then we …

After treatment doesn’t work, I think that’s when you come back and take a look and say, “Okay, what else can we do?” If all options have been exhausted, I think then, yes, you can go to court and request revocation. I would just want to make sure that before I requested somebody’s freedom be taken away, that I have truly tried every single thing and given that person every opportunity to turn things around.

Leonard: I do want to emphasize, anywhere from the Department of Justice to [PU 00:21:31] to the National Council of State Governments to the American Probation and Parole Association, and I could go down the list and name 15 more, they want us to remediate, to the best of our ability, I’m saying “we,” I’m talking about parole and probation throughout the country, to try intermediate sanctions, to try to hold the person accountable, provide those sanctions, and provide those resources to help that person. Every organization out there is telling us to do exactly that, so now becomes the key issue, when do you maintain, when do you try to remediate, when do you try to provide these intermediate sanctions, and when do you revoke? Is there a magic formula?

Keith: I think it’s on a individual basis. There’s no such thing as a magic formula. I think every individual comes in front of you is different and you have to treat them differently. To revoke somebody for using cocaine one time would not be a great decision for that individual, because everybody makes mistakes.

Leonard: It’s not going to be one time. Let’s be honest.

Keith: That’s true.

Leonard: Our folks screw up on a regular basis.

Keith: A regular basis, right.

Leonard: Yet at the same time, 69% successfully complete supervision, so obviously, the community supervision officers are working with that individual, with their parents, with their families, with their treatment providers, to try to provide some sense of stability so that person can safely complete supervision, but nobody does it without screw-ups.

David: Very true.

Keith: That’s correct, that’s correct. Then the more they screw up, the more they dig a hole for themselves, and eventually, no matter how much you try to do as far as intervention for them, revocation is on the way. You either tell them that you are doing this for them, you’re trying to help them out, trying to find a cause of what’s going on behind it, treatment, modality, inpatient treatment, outpatient treatment, it doesn’t matter, at one point in time, revocation is inevitable. You can talk to them as much as you can, but some people, no matter what you do, they’re still going to want to, they’re not going to follow the rules and regulations of supervision, so they’re going to go back.

David: I want to throw this out there too, to consider too. Sometimes when we think about revocation, it is a hard thing to think about, taking somebody’s freedom, but I had a few clients actually that have said to me before, after they’ve been released, that they feel, and it’s a touchy subject, it’s something for debate, but they said that they feel like their time in jail saved them.

Keith: That’s true.

David: Now you can look back in their histories and see PCP, cocaine, heroin, constant use, homelessness, no employment, so those are strong risk factors for possible recidivation, but sometimes I think our society as a whole looks at prison and jail and says, “It’s the worst thing ever. It’s the worst thing ever. It needs to change.” There are things that need to be adjusted, most definitely, but when I hear clients who have said that’s what saved their life, it really gives me pause to say, “You know what? There is a time when we have to go to the judge and say, ‘Take their freedom.'” I was going to throw that out there. I think one thing, can I go back for a second?

Leonard: Yeah, please do.

David: You asked the question about what would we recommend to people across the country listening and about our role as probation officers, and I think one thing too is that, remember that we are on the front line of behavior change, of trying to instill behavior change in a very, very, very difficult population, the people that you read about who have committed the armed robberies, the people that you have read about that are running through the streets high on cocaine and heroin. Those are the people we meet with. Those are the people who we get to know their grandmothers, their children, their spouses, and it is difficult. I think people need to remember that if a client messes up, even several times on supervision, it’s not just a cut and dry process. If it took 20 years for somebody to get involved with the criminal justice system and they’ve got a year on probation, we need to keep in mind what sort of issues. It takes a while.

Leonard: I go back to my experience in Maryland where the person said that if you’re going to revoke them for one, two, three, four, five drug positives, then just revoke them now, just revoke everybody. They come out of prison on a Tuesday and they’re back on a Wednesday, because what’s the sense? They’re not going to go to treatment or they’re going to be disruptive in treatment, they’re not going to get a job or they’re going to take too long to get a job, and they’re going to pay their fines in restitution, but not pay all of it.

There’s always problems with people under supervision. Your job is to break through the barriers, understand that person, understand their family, understand their circumstances, use cognitive-behavioral therapy, establish a relationship with that person, and at the same time, magically induce these individuals to participate in programs, encourage their successful participation in programs, and hold them accountable when they screw up.

David: Yeah, correct.

Leonard: That’s a huge, huge, huge task. People need to understand, people listening throughout the country, people need to understand that out of the correctional population, which is 7,000,000 individuals on any given day, 5,000,000 belong to us in parole and probation. The vast majority of people involved in the criminal justice system are not behind bars. The vast majority of the people in the criminal justice system are beholden or responsible or reporting to parole and probation agents.

Keith: That’s correct.

Leonard: Can I throw out a question to Cromer real quick?

David: Yeah, please.

Leonard: Keith, I have a question for you. We had talked about this earlier, but you said before you had had clients that on supervision were doing stellar, they were meeting all their special conditions, coming to the office visits, drug testing clean, working, but then something happened where everything just falls apart. You mentioned earlier the importance of helping the clients build a plan. Was it just that they didn’t have a plan that they fell apart or was there something … How does something go from this really positive trajectory and then it just evaporates?

Keith: Yes, either one, they have a plan or …

Leonard: Back in the mic. There we go.

Keith: One, they didn’t have a plan, or two, something in their lives that destroyed them. A lot of times they don’t know how to cope with issues that come up in their lives, so the first thing they do is go to drug use. The friends, the family, things happen, or death in the family, everybody goes out with everybody, but a lot of people [inaudible 00:28:07]] surroundings tend to cope with using drugs, marijuana, cocaine, whatever the case may be, or celebrating, the same direction. That’s the reason what you have to figure out is how to let them know that that’s not okay to celebrate or to go into mourning regarding using drugs regarding an issue. Then also a lot of times, they’re going well and then they sabotage themselves because they don’t know, “I’m doing so well, I don’t know how to-“

Leonard: “I don’t know what to do from here,” maybe.

Keith: “… [crosstalk 00:28:39] do from here,” so they do, the fear comes in, and so they use cocaine or whatever drug.

David: Because in my head I was thinking, that’s one of the most difficult parts for me as a supervision officer is when somebody’s doing fantastic, and so in your head you’re like, “Wow, this person, they’re going to have a great life. 20 years from now, they’re going to be great,” and then everything falls apart.

Leonard: I think that struggle is with every person out there. You’re going to have good days and bad days and some points where they’re doing well and some points where they’re not doing well, and somehow, some way, you’ve got to work your magic regardless of the circumstances. We got about 15 seconds left. Comments? Comments?

David: I was going to say, just remember that we’re on the front lines of behavior change with folks involved in the criminal justice system, not easy.

Leonard: Look, we have better results in the last couple years here at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, higher case closure rates, fewer arrests. Congratulations to you and everybody out there that chooses to be a community supervision officer, and a parole and probation agent, outside of the District of Columbia. Ladies and gentlemen, we have been talking to David Mauldin, CSO, Keith Cromer, CSO, with my agency, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. This is D.C. Public Safety. We appreciate your comments, we even appreciate your criticisms, and we want everybody to have themselves a pleasant day.


Predicting Criminal Risk and Behavior

DC Public Safety Radio

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Leonard Sipes: From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host Leonard Sipes. Today’s program, ladies and gentlemen, Predicting Criminal Risk. We’re going to be taking a look at risk instruments. What are they? How good are they? From the Washington State Institute for Public Policy we have Zachary Hamilton, Assistant Professor Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology. Director of Washington State Institute for Criminal Justice at the Washington State University.

Joining Zachary will be Mason Burley, Senior Research Associate Washington State Institute for Public Policy. The website Gentlemen welcome to DC Public Safety.

Male: Hello. Thank you for having us.

Leonard Sipes: All right, risk assessments. This is something that seems to be is the foundation of meaningful change within the criminal justice system. We now within the court services and and offender supervision agency, my agency, we’ve been using risk instruments for about 10 years. Risk instruments are being used for sentencing, they’re being used in all things inside the criminal justice system. Give me, first of all, whether or not you think risk instruments are the foundation of meaningful change within criminal justice. Then give me a layman’s definition of what risk instruments are.

Z. Hamilton: Well I can jump in on that. I do think risk assessments are the foundation of really how we move forward in the criminal justice system. A lot of what people have complained about in years past has sort of been the inconsistency, inaccuracy, and maybe the overuse of discretion within the system. What risk assessments do is they put everyone on an even playing field, or at least they attempt to put everyone on an even playing field, so that everyone’s judged in a similar manner. In terms of what a risk assessment is, in terms of layman’s language, it’s essentially a set of items that you use. Maybe a survey or a questionnaire, or maybe they’re items that are collected from a mix of self reported questionnaires or criminal history measures that are known within an agencies records.

These items usually contain a mix of what are called static items, that look at the offenders criminal history, their age, their gender maybe. But also some dynamic items too that try to focus on the offenders needs. Trying to examine whether or not they have issues with regards to employment, substance abuse, medical health, residency, any sort of things that may directly or indirectly impact their future criminal behavior or misbehavior on supervision.

Leonard Sipes: So we’re looking at criminal history, we’re looking at the age of the offender. We’re talking about possibly the sex of the offender. There are static issues as well as dynamic issues that go into this that formulate a sense as to who this person is, and what their level of risk is, and what their level of need is in terms of social services?

Z. Hamilton: That is correct and some of what you’re describing in terms of how risk assessments and needs assessments have been extended throughout the criminal justice system is about the idea that there’s certain behaviors that we would like to predict. Recidivism is one but there’s others that you had mentioned that may exist at a different point within the system. The individual coming into the system may have a first risk or needs assessment completed at the pre-trial phase. Maybe a judge might use that to identify whether or not this person would be a risk of flight. At that point you might be trying to predict recidivism but you might also be trying to predict failure to appear.

Once the persons incarcerated you might want to predict infraction behavior. Once they’ve been released or re-entered into the community you’d want to predict recidivism behavior but maybe you’d also like to predict compliance while on supervision. There’s a multitude of outcomes in which you can examine and utilize these tools to create essentially prediction models.

Leonard Sipes: What we have is law enforcement using them, pre-trial using them, the judge using them, in terms of sentencing. Parole and probation agencies using them to figure out how closely to watch this individual. Correctional systems, prisons, could be using them in terms of the potential for good behavior within the prison system. Across the board risk instruments are becoming a bigger part of the criminal justice system.

Z. Hamilton: Yes as more individuals are gathering data and more agencies are gathering data. Tracking offenders and identifying how you can utilize that data to better supervise, more efficiently supervise, or even remove individuals from supervision to create a better system is, I think, where risk assessment is heading.

Leonard Sipes: I do want to go back to Dr. Hamilton in terms of discussion as to how effective these instruments are, but Mason Burley I’m going to go to you. This whole issue of risk assessment instruments started with the insurance industry, did it not? The insurance industry for decades, multiple decades, has been assessing the risk of individuals on their caseloads, if you will, as to whether or not they’re going to be a risk in terms of health. Whether or not they’re going to have a heart attack. Whether or not they’re going to be unemployed. Whether or not they’re going to have health problems across the board. Am I right or wrong?

M. Burley: I think actuarial instruments have been used in a lot of different arenas. Certainly outside the public policy area and I wanted to emphasize… Insurance would certainly be one of those, but the history in Washington State really goes back to quite an extensive and evolving use of risk assessment in the criminal justice area, if I can focus on that for a second. Because I think the history’s pretty important in terms of the utility we found in the state. Initially in the late 90’s the juvenile justice system decided to look at some evidence based approaches and to target who might be best served in some of those programs they developed risk assessment instruments for all the juvenile courts in the state.

That later evolved into the supervision that Dr. Hamilton mentioned with the department of corrections and then looking at who was at most risk of further crime and looking at supervision resources and how those should be targeted to high risk individuals. That risk assessment has gone through several iterations and Dr. Hamilton and his institute really refined and improved as they’ve learned from what works with best with an instrument. It’s been adopted in other areas as he mentioned throughout the state with pre-trial and judges deciding information about bail and pre-trial decisions based on historic risk.

Then finally the work we recently released that the institute looked at, the mental health population and what individuals who have been involved in the forensic mental health system and the type of risk they pose. I think that it’s becoming more recognized, the value of it in Washington State and we provide a good test case in some of these scenarios as individuals move through different phases of the criminal justice system.

Leonard Sipes: Before continuing I do want to plug the Washington State Institute for Public Policy as putting out some of the most easy to read, clear, precise, research findings. Not just within the criminal justice system but across all phases of the government. I do want to congratulate the Washington State Institute for Public Policy for it’s dedication to put out the research that the rest of us, who are not researchers can understand and the policy makers can grasp and run with. You guys have probably over a decade of experience putting out nice, clear, and concise public policy research. Again their website www.wsipp.wa for the state of washington .gov.

Did you want to continue Dr. Hamilton?

Z. Hamilton: I think Mason covered a lot of what’s been done but it’s going back several years. Even back to 1997, when the Washington State Institute of Public Policy mainly one of their key researchers, Robert Bernowsky, created one of the first juvenile risk assessments that was used throughout the state. That spawned this idea of collecting data overtime, tracking offender populations and re-adjusting those assessment models to improve prediction over time. As people change, as the population changes, as even the criminal statues change. The focus of the assessment is fine tuned over time and that’s something that was put into place early with WSIPP. I think those traditions are starting to continue on now with these new adjustments to the adult risk tools as well.

Leonard Sipes: There’s an endless list of policy questions I do want to get into in terms of Microsoft coming out with an app that’s predicting future criminal behavior. Commercial applications that law enforcement is now using. The attorney general of the United States, Attorney General Holder, former Attorney General who criticized risk instruments used in sentencing about possible bias. Every time that there is a mass shooting there is a psychologist that gets on CNN and says that there is no way we can predict future criminal behavior. All of those are issues that I want to get on to or discuss. The biggest issue that people when they come to me and talk to me is, “Leonard, how effective are these things.” That’s why I love your research.

You mentioned the fact that you did something recent talking about the criminal population within the state of Washington but also whether or not the involuntary treatment population for mental health reasons. Whether or not the risk instruments that the state of Washington was using could be used for both groups. So I’m using that as the basis for this program. While you say while no risk instrument can predict future criminal offenses with 100% accuracy. The goal is to create an assessment that has strong predictive performance. How strong is that predictive performance?

Z. Hamilton: There’s different industry standards for how we identify predictive performance and as you mentioned you probably don’t want me to go too far down the rabbit hole in terms of giving a statistics lesson. The common metric of which people base an assessment is what’s called an area under the curve statistic. There’s really ways of identifying the strength of the instrument and industry standards that set cut points within the statistic to say what’s a weak prediction, what’s a moderate prediction, what’s a strong prediction. What we’re finding with these tools is that we’ve advanced our methods as we gather more data. As we’re able to refine and focus on specific types of crimes. Not just any recidivism generally but maybe focusing on what predictors predict violent crime versus property crime or drug crime. You’re able to really hone in on that prediction and get strong models almost every single time.

Without going too much into the detail of what those industry… We tend to exceed the industry standard for what are called strong models and a lot of our models tend to give in to those upper echelons of being able to accurately identify recidivism prediction across the population at rates of over 70%.

Leonard Sipes: Well over 70% would be astounding and I think that gives individuals a fairly decent benchmark in terms of understanding risk instruments. In other words there’s no way that we can do this with 100% predictive behavior. That’s impossible, but at the 100% level that’s pretty [dag-gone 00:12:20] good and pretty predictive. I want to get into the categories used in the research. What they tried to do was to focus on four particular categories. This was the division of correction there in the state of Washington. High Violent, High Non-Violent, Moderate Risk or Low Risk. They tried to keep it simple in terms of falling into one of those four categories, correct?

Z. Hamilton: Yes. Really it’s a big advance and they’ve been doing it for a while in Washington State but it’s a distinction that Washington State has that I believe is a big advantage as compared to other risk assessment instruments. Anybody who supervises the centers will tell you it’s not just the probability of any risk, it’s the type of risk that they pose. Many risk assessment instruments will essentially say, “Are you low, moderate, or high risk? What’s your probability of risk for committing a new arrest or a new conviction.”

That’s great but somebody that has, let’s just say, a 45% likelihood of committing a drug crime, versus an individual that has a 42% likelihood of committing a violent crime. Yeah the percentages are different but you’re going to supervise those individuals differently. The severity or the public perception of a particular crime is going to be of note. So an individual that may have a slightly lower probability of committing a violent crime may be supervised at a greater rate simply because the threat to society or to public safety is a little bit stronger than that person that’s more likely to commit a drug crime.

Is that coming through okay?

Leonard Sipes: Yeah, perfectly. That’s why I wanted to start off with the issue of fundamental change within the criminal justice system. Because it seems, in terms of evidence based practices, what we’re seeing is that we should be focusing our resources on the highest risk offenders and not focusing our resources on lower risk offenders. Because we’re talking about 5 million human beings on any given day under community supervision currently. Under community supervision on any given day according to US Department of Justice Data and Parole and Probation agencies throughout the country. They can have rations of 100:1, 200:1, I’ve seen 250:1. Luckily here in Washington DC our maximum caseload is 50:1, for specialized cases it’s much lower than that. But when you have that disparity between say, in terms of community supervision prone probation agents and enormous case loads, you’ve got to figure out who’s your highest risk and provide the resources to that highest risk offender. Correct?

Z. Hamilton: That is correct and one of the distinctions within Washington State, and this has been going on ever since 2007 I believe. It might even be 2005. They had a statute that went through the legislature called the Offender Accountability Act. What it essentially said was we’re going to use a risk assessment to determine whose lowest risk and those lowest risk offenders are essentially not going to be supervised. If we can determine what their probability of recidivism and it’s within a range of being of low or very low risk then we don’t feel it’s within our due diligence to give them extensive supervision. There’s a fair amount of research out there that identifies the individuals that are of low risk of recidivism, the more you supervise them actually the more likely you are to observe behavior and they end up becoming more likely to commit crimes simply because of these observation effects.

Leonard Sipes: We end up re-incarcerating the wrong people. That’s the bottom line.

Z. Hamilton: That is the bottom line. What Washington State has done and has been doing for years is essentially saying administrative supervision or no supervision for those individuals that are of these lower tiered risks. That not only has sort of, fell in line with risk need and responsivity theory but it’s also saved the state a lot of money. Evaluations of this change in statute has essentially identified no uptake in recidivism following it’s passing. The effect has essentially been a net win for the state.

Leonard Sipes: We’re more than half way through the program. I do want to re-introduce our guest Zachary Hamilton, Assistant Professor Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology. Director of the Washington State Institute for Criminal Justice at the Washington State University.

Mason Burley is also by our microphone. Senior Research Associate Washington State  Institute of Public Policy. Once again I will continue to praise the Washington State  Institute of Public Policy for putting out extraordinarily good research. Some of the best in the United States.

Let me go into a little bit more about this individual research and then talk more about policy questions. What you did with this research was take a look at violent felony convictions, non-violent felony convictions, and any conviction over the course of a 2 year period to measure the accuracy of the risk instrument used for he state of Washington. You took all of that and basically you said that in some cases the degree of probability, one as high as 70%, and that was for the non-violent felony convictions. Was that correct?

M. Burley: Washington State has a long standing history of using risk assessment with the department of corrections and the prison population that are under supervision. So we’re able to kind of look at the risk elements that we use for that population and see if the same risk assessment is a valid tool for other populations as well. As you mentioned we looked at violent felony and non-violent felony for DOC and for the DOC population between the highest risk offenders 60 to 70 percent of those have a non-violent, repeat crime of a non-violent felony within 2 years.

Leonard Sipes: But those are the people that you designated in that category and the results we’re validated by saying that 70% of the people that we put into that category did have a non-violent conviction.

M. Burley: Yes, we looked at that category of the prison population under supervision and compared individuals in the mental health system in Washington State to see if the same kind of elements can be used to predict two year recidivism as well. Now for that population the recidivism rates we’re much lower. Two to three times lower in some circumstances. The risk assessment tool was still valid in that we could distinguish between low, moderate and high risk offenders along that continuum of risk.

Leonard Sipes: But what I’m asking is, is that the paper basically says that there was a … I’m simplifying things. An above 70% accuracy rate. What does that mean when you say it’s an above .75 accuracy rate? Which is to me, as a lame person, that basically says 75% of the time we were accurately able to predict. Am I right or wrong?

M. Burley: I misunderstood the question. Dr. Hamilton maybe you want to jump in.

Z. Hamilton: Yeah, it’s a little more nuanced than that. The way that you perceived that, what you’re determining the accuracy rate as is the area under the curve statistic. Essentially what it says, and I’m going to explain it as hopefully as simply as possible. If you have two groups and you separated your two groups of people you we’re observing into those that recidivated and those that did not. If you were to randomly select one person out of each one of those groups. Using this risk assessment you’d identify that the individual that recidivated had a higher risk over 70% of the time.

Leonard Sipes: Had a higher risk over 70% of the time.

Z. Hamilton: Correct.

Leonard Sipes: That doesn’t mean that they went out and under your criteria, or the criteria of the study, and were convicted within a two year time period, that they had that higher probability.

Z. Hamilton: No, no. What we do is we take that risk score. We create a continuous risk score from zero to wherever it ends up being at it’s highest. With that continuous risk score then you essentially dissect it into several pieces where you have a low, a moderate, a high non-violent and a high violent. In any one of those groups you can identify what’s the probability of somebody who falls into those categories recidivating.

Leonard Sipes: For the layman’s question ‘How accurate are these instruments?’ and using the example of what happened in the state of Washington. Is there a layman-esq answer to say that they would be accurate 70% of the time, 50% of the time, 60% of the time?

Z. Hamilton: Again it’s a little more nuanced than that. The instrument doesn’t come out and say, “This person is going to recidivate.” It doesn’t come out with a yes or no answer and say, “This person is going to recidivate. This other person, person B, is not going to recidivate.” What it does is the score will provide a probability of recidivism. Let’s say the score ranges from 0 to 100. Somebody that scores out at a 50 may have a 30% likely hood of recidivism. If that 30% likely hood puts them in the upper tier or high risk category than that category can then be identified as having their aggregate probability of recidivism.

It gets a little more complicated but essentially what we do is we utilize that area under the curve statistic to essentially rate that continuous risk score, to say how accurate it is and it also allows us to compare our instrument to someone else’s instrument. But to give a quick and easy answer, to say this persons going to recidivate and this person’s not. How accurate is the assessment? Risk assessments aren’t built to do that. They’re built to provide guidelines for individuals to say who is higher risk as compared to another person who might be of moderate or lower risk.

Leonard Sipes: But it’s inevitable that there are going to be false positives and false negatives. It’s going to be inevitable that there are a certain number of people who are designated as high risk are not going to come back to the criminal justice system. There is a certain inevitable … It is inevitable that a person that you would designate as low risk would come back to the criminal justice system. There has got to be a certain understanding by the public that these are not perfect predictive analysis. That there are going to be false positives and false negatives.

Z. Hamilton: That is true. I believe either in the report, or in one of the appendices of the report, we identified the probability of recidivism by falling into one of the many categories we’ve created the cut points for. So you can identify what’s the probability for recidivism for high violent, high non-violent, moderate and low.

M. Burley: I think I was answering that question rather than the overall predictive ability of the model. It think it’s important that what I learned from this, working with Dr. Hamilton as well is that the risk is on a continual scale and we we’re able to kind of look at … Even though there are false positives and false negatives. The likely hood of being able to tell which offenders are going to recidivate or which individuals are going to recidivate increases on a gradual basis as you move from low to high risk based on what you find in the assessment.

Leonard Sipes: I’m going to go back to questions I posed right before the break. We have everybody and their uncle now putting out risk instruments of one shape or another. Microsoft came out with an app. There are commercial entities that are basically saying that law enforcement agencies that we’re going to be able to tell you with higher degrees of probability who on the street is going to commit further crimes or commit violent crimes. We have a world that is now moving towards predictive risk instruments beyond criminal justice. The private sector is doing this. Do you have any concerns about this because it is inevitable that again we have false positives, we have false negatives. We’re going to be pin pointing people and talking about their probabilities for coming into the criminal justice system and we’re going to be wrong.

M. Burley: Yeah. I have lots of concerns about that. Not necessarily that it’s a private sector doing that. There’s plenty of companies that exist in the private sector that create great risk assessment instruments. My fear is individuals from the private sector potentially taking large data sources not knowing how exactly they fit within the jurisdiction that they’re evaluating and essentially spitting out a model that is accurate to a degree, but that accuracy isn’t really developed within the known quantities of that particular jurisdiction. Every single location in the United States is slightly different. You do have a certain stability in terms of certain items being predictive. Age being one of them, prior convictions being another. But individuals that are creating risk assessment instruments that don’t have knowledge of that on the ground usage, or the variations in the population, could potentially create models that are not as accurate as their claim.

Leonard Sipes: Every time there is a mass shooting. Every time there is a horrific violent crime in this country a psychologist will do an interview for CNN and say, “Even though the person had a history of mental health treatment. Even though the person had a history of schizophrenia …” I do want to point out that even though there are a higher percentage of the people that come from mental health backgrounds involved in the criminal justice system the overwhelming majority of people who have mental health backgrounds are not going to be coming into the criminal justice system but a psychologist or psychiatrist will stand up on CNN and say, “It is impossible to predict future criminal behavior. Yes he had contact with the mental health system, but to predict this level of violence is just literally impossible.”

Then media will pick up the phone and call me and say, “If these individuals can not be … If you can not predict their future criminality then is it … Psychologists are saying it’s impossible to predict future violent criminal behavior. Then the risk instruments that you talk about, what good are they?”

Do you see the level of confusion that folks in the media and the general public would have when a psychologist gets up and makes a statement like that?

Z. Hamilton: Yes. I can. The issue is that the risk assessment instruments that were discussing and that we’ve created, they’re built for a specific population. They’re built for people that have contact with the criminal justice system. If nobody’s had any contact with the criminal justice system they’ve never been assessed for risk. That’s one limitation right there. The other is that there’s individuals that typically commit these crimes a lot of times you’ll see those psychiatrists come up and say, “They have a mental illness, or an undiagnosed mental illness.” Again if there’s no data to be able to identify any of this persons prior behavior which is a lot of what risk assessments are built upon then it’s difficult to assess somebody’s risk.

Again going into the general population and identify someones risk of recidivism is usually not what risk assessments are built for. They’re built for release decisions, pre-trial decisions. Decisions on probation or parole and supervision. They’re not necessarily built for that particular purpose. To be even more blunt they’re built on an aggregate population so we’re addressing the aggregate risk or the average risk of a person within the population that we’ve had assessments for.

That individual that commits the serious offense or a mass shooting, that had never entered into one of those populations to be assessed. You’re not going to have any identification of risk for that particular individual and those events are so rare that they cant be predicted based on the average events that normally criminals and offenders commit.

Leonard Sipes: Our guests today have been Dr. Zachary Hamilton, Assistant Professor Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology. Director of the Washington State Institute for Criminal Justice at the Washington State University. Mason Burley’s been by our microphone. Senior Research Associate Washington State Institute for Public Policy.

Ladies and Gentlemen this is D.C. Public Safety, we appreciate your comments. We even appreciate your criticisms and we want everybody to have themselves a very pleasant day.


Veteran Treatment Courts

DC Public Safety Radio

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Leonard Sipes: From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen, veterans treatment court is the topic for today. We have three extraordinary guests before our microphones. Aaron Arnold is the Director of Treatment Court programs at the Center for Court Innovation. Aaron oversees the Center’s national training and technical assistance for drug courts. Greg Crawford is a Correctional Program Specialist at the Community Services Division at the National Institute of Corrections. Greg’s experience prior to the National Institute of Corrections includes over fourteen years as a probation department person and a community based mental health agency expert. We have Ruby Qazilbash. Did I get that right or did I screw that up? Qazilbash.

Ruby Qazilbash: Qazilbash. Good enough.

Leonard Sipes: Ruby is the Associate Deputy Director for Justice Systems Policy at the Bureau of Justice Assistance within the US Department of Justice. She leads a team of policy staff in program and policy development aimed at improving safe local and tribal justice systems. To all three of you, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Greg Crawford: Thanks, Len.

Leonard Sipes: Veterans treatment court, it is exploding. It is growing like wildfire throughout the United States, so Greg, give me an overview of what veteran’s treatment court is.

Greg Crawford: Basically what a veterans treatment court is, is a hybrid integration of drug court and mental health court that serves military veterans, and sometimes active duty personnel. The first veterans court was implemented in 2008 up in Buffalo, New York by Judge Robert Russell, and since then, there’s been over three hundred implemented across this country.

Leonard Sipes: That’s an amazing amount of growth. Aaron, to my knowledge, I can’t think of another criminal justice program that has grown as much or as fast as veterans treatment courts.

Aaron Arnold: I’d have to agree with you. I mean drug courts have been around longer, and there are more of them, but they didn’t grow quite as fast as we’re seeing veterans treatment courts grow today.

Leonard Sipes: Ruby, the role of the Bureau of Justice Assistance within the US Department of Justice, you are the Associate Deputy Director for Justice Systems Policy. Obviously, you’re here to support BJA’s involvement in veterans treatment courts, correct?

Ruby Qazilbash: That’s correct. BJ provides training, funding. In fact, we’ve set up almost two hundred veteran treatment court teams around the country, training soup to nuts, making sure that those team members understand what their roles and responsibilities are, that they come out of that training with a policy and procedures manual, and they’re ready to go and open those doors to veterans. We, also, provide federal funding to the drug court programs, solicitation, and veteran treatment courts are eligible to come in for federal funding, federal grants to support the implementation of these courts around the country.

Leonard Sipes: I can’t think of any other program where everybody’s on board. Everybody’s enthusiastic, everybody wants this to occur. The question is why? Why is it growing so fast? Why is everybody on board with this?

Aaron Arnold: I would say because they work, Len. First of all, veterans are not typically criminals prior to their military service, and some veterans have experienced things and done things that most of us can’t imagine, and they come home, and sometimes they struggle. Sometimes they self-medicate with alcohol and drugs, and they, unfortunately, find themselves involved in the criminal justice system, and really what veterans treatment courts do is they’re an opportunity to intervene in the lives of veterans before things escalate for them in the system. What they’re doing, is they’re restoring veterans’ lives. They’re reducing recidivism. They’re enhancing public safety, and saving taxpayer dollars, so it’s checking all the boxes.

Leonard Sipes: Is there an issue with veterans and a crime?

Aaron Arnold: Well, typically, like I said, veterans are not criminals prior to their service, and they’re coming home and they’re really struggling with post traumatic stress disorder, and traumatic brain injury, and it’s taking them down a path, and I think that’s why it’s so critical for our system to intervene before they go down a deeper path.

Leonard Sipes: People so far are seemingly bullish about veterans treatment courts, and the question either goes out to Aaron or to Ruby. Most people seem to feel that they do better than the typical drug courts or the typical treatment courts, that veterans, given the chance, have an opportunity to rearrange their lives and straighten their lives out, but they need assistance. First of all, am I right with the perception that veterans treatment courts seem to have greater potential than other specialty treatment courts?

Ruby Qazilbash: There are obviously a proliferation of drug courts around the country. As Aaron said, that movement has been building and growing for the past twenty-five years, but, since then, we’ve, also, seen other specialty or problem solving courts address the special needs of individuals in our communities, including mental health courts, and then, of course, veterans treatment courts. I think that the issue is to find the diversion opportunity. You want to reduce incarceration and get people the help and the services that they need, so they can lead productive lives, crime free, to find the right intervention for them, and the project that we’re talking about today we hope is going to lead us down that road.
Do they see equal or better outcomes as drug courts that we know of? I think more research, for sure, needs to be done, but outcomes are looking good so far.

Leonard Sipes: Everybody seems to be very encouraged about that. Everybody seems to be very encouraged in terms of the outcomes thus far. We’ve had 2.5 million men and women serve in our country since 9/11, and 1.5 million serving overseas. Veterans come home. They struggle with combat related issues. As Greg said a little while ago, PTSD, major depression, homelessness, suicide, and some are ending up with us, within the criminal justice system. This is not just a matter of good criminal justice policy. This has a moral issue attached to it as well, does it not, Greg?

Greg Crawford: I think so. Absolutely. Here’s the deal, like you said, we had 2.5 million serve our country since 9/11, and really it’s a volunteer service. These people are serving our country as volunteers, so the rest of us don’t have to go overseas and fight our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or wherever they are, so absolutely, I think we have an obligation to try to help them.

Leonard Sipes: Where are we going with all of this? The Bureau of Justice Assistance in the US Department of Justice is providing funding for the expansion of drug court. We are talking about evaluating drug court. We are talking about creating specialized instruments for drug court. The National Institute of Corrections is coming out at a certain point with a white paper that describes what best practices in drug court.

Greg Crawford: Yeah. What we want to talk about here today is … The white paper actually served as a platform for all of NIC’s veterans specific initiatives. We’ve, also, done a three hour live satellite broadcast on veterans treatments court, and, also, with that, I contacted Ruby over at BJA about a potential collaboration to develop a risk needs assessment tool that factors in trauma for justice involved veterans. As a former probation officer, back in the day I would get cases, and these veterans coming in from joint base Lewis McChord over in Pierce Country, Washington. They would be ordered to do domestic violence treatment, and nothing on the court order would touch their underlying issues of PTSD and TBI that I think are a major cause of them bleeding into the system, and that’s why we partnered on this project, because we thought there needs to be some science behind what we’re doing in these veterans treatment courts. I don’t want to steal Aaron’s thunder, but I’ll let him talk a little bit about the project.

Leonard Sipes: Go ahead, Aaron.

Aaron Arnold: Thanks, Greg. Greg hit it on the head. We’re trying to put some science behind what veterans treatment courts are doing, and I should just give a little context to say that in the drug court field, for a number of years now, courts have been eager to adopt evidence based risk need assessments, and all that means is to use a standardized set of questions that courts or probation departments will ask to offenders who are coming into the court system to try to identify what are their actual needs that we can help to address to reduce their risk of re-offending, and those tools exist. There are many of them that are being used in the drug court context. They have been proven over and over again in the research to help courts do a better job of getting people the appropriate kinds of supervision and treatment they need, and reduce their long term risk of re-offending.
What has not existed, up till now, is a specialized risk need tool designed specifically for the justice involved veterans population. That’s what this project is intended to create. Here at the Center for Court Innovation … We’re a nonprofit justice reform organization in New York City, and what we’re doing is, with our in house research department, is to create the first evidence based risk need assessment tools for use in veterans treatment courts.

Leonard Sipes: It’s important that whatever risk instrument that we come up with, that it really works with that particular population, whether it be juveniles, whether it be women, whether it be men, whether it be adults, whether it be pre-trial, whether it be supervision, adult supervision, whether it be … It doesn’t matter. The whole idea is to create a risk instrument that is going to be germane to that particular population. What is unique, Aaron, about the veterans and in a risk instrument?

Aaron Arnold: That’s exactly right. We’ve actually spent the last twelve months working, like I said, with our in house researchers, with our partner agencies around the country, like the National Association of Drug Court Professionals and Justice for Vets, other organizations who work in this field, as well as a hand picked committee of experts in the field, who are helping us to identify what are the specific unique factors that veterans bring to the justice system, and how can we reflect those in a new evidence based risk need tool. Some of those we’ve already talked about: the exposure to combat trauma and the resulting post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and other mental health issues that emerge from that, the substance abuse and other behavioral health factors that can emerge after folks return home. Making sure that all of those very specific needs are reflected in the instrument itself, so that courts have the tools they need to make sure that folks are getting the appropriate levels of supervision and treatment.
The tools are essentially done at this point. We’re excited. After a year, we’ve drafted up the tools, and they’re ready to be tested in the field.

Leonard Sipes: Ruby, this is exciting. You represent the Bureau of Justice Assistance from the US Department of Justice, and within the Obama Administration, what they have done through federal agencies and through funding to state, local, tribal agencies, is to expand the concept of alternatives to traditional ways of conducting criminal justice. This is exciting, because it’s moving in a dozen different directions. We are basically reinventing the way that we operate the criminal justice system on a wide variety of platforms. The veterans treatment court is just one of them.

Ruby Qazilbash: Without a doubt. I think we know so much more about what contributes to criminal behavior, and what this project lends itself towards is furthering to narrow that, and to get the right people into the right program at the right time, and I think Aaron hit on it when he said that the intention for this risk and needs assessment is to figure out for the individual that you’re presented with in that courtroom and that day.

With using an assessment tool that’s accurate for that population and for that person’s peers. What is their risk level, so that we can assign supervision accordingly. We don’t want to over supervise. We don’t want to under supervise. We want to get it right. For needs assessment, what kinds of potentially substance abuse treatment might that individual need, what kind of mental health counseling. What should that look like? What should the dosage be, so that we can give people what they need. The point here is to increase their functional outcomes, the way that they behave and act in society in a way that’s beneficial to them and to the rest of us, and to reduce recidivism, thereby enhancing public safety for the community that those folks live in.
Leonard Sipes: The larger question is that it becomes a larger issue. Veterans treatment courts go hand in hand with regular treatment courts, go hand in hand with all sorts of opportunities and endeavors that the federal government, and state governments and local governments are trying to employ nowadays to operate the criminal justice system differently, to intervene in the lives of individuals earlier, to defer them or to keep them out of the mainstream criminal justice system, if at all humanly possible, to provide treatment services in prison, and on post release.
This is part of a larger effort, correct?

Ruby Qazilbash: Without a doubt. It is the move towards risk based decision making, while striking a balance between reducing unnecessary incarceration and maintaining or increasing public safety. That’s the goal.

Leonard Sipes: Because every governor in every state has had a conversation with their state public safety secretaries or their directors of corrections, and basically said look, the correctional budget is now the second largest component of our state budget. We cannot continue to bring in the numbers of people that we have. It’s impossible to sustain this level of funding, so we need alternatives. You can look at that from a cost effectiveness point of view. You have now both sides of the political aisle. It doesn’t matter what side you’re on. They are now supportive, because they want a bigger bang for tax paid dollars. They want more results.
This is all part of a unique and growing and interesting aspect to criminal justice administration. I’ve been in this system for forty-five years, and I have never seen what I’m seeing now in terms of that emphasis on programs, that emphasis on treatment, that emphasis on is there another way of handling this person besides simply throwing them in prison, so the veterans treatment court seems to be a natural outcome of that. It’s the growth that astounds me for veterans treatment courts.

Aaron Arnold: Yeah. You talked about the numbers. Since the early 80s, we’ve seen nearly a four hundred percent increase in the US prison population, and I think the writing was on the wall. I think everybody’s on board that alternatives are critical to turning this thing around for our country. We have basically one in thirty-five adults under some from of correctional supervision, whether it be prison, probation, parole, so something needed to be done. When this first court was implemented in 2008, we immediately started seeing results, and not only is it effective, it’s a humane way to go about treating our veterans.

Leonard Sipes: We’re more than halfway through the program, ladies and gentlemen. We’re doing a show today on veterans treatment courts with the National Institute of Corrections, and with the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and with the Center for Court Innovation. Aaron Arnold is Director of Treatment Programs for the Center for Court Innovation, Greg Crawford, is a Correctional Programs Specialist at the Community Services Division of the National Institute of Corrections; and Ruby Qazilbash … I hope I’m not screwing that name up. Ruby is the Associate Deputy Director for Justice Systems Policy at the Bureau of Justice Assistance within the US Department of Justice.
Where do we see drug treatment courts going. Aaron, I’m going to start off with you. For the next ten years, if we’ve had this explosive growth, and since 2008, we have three hundred veterans treatment courts throughout the country. Where does that take us ten years from now?

Aaron Arnold: I think part of the trend is what we’re discussing here today, is to make science based decisions. There’s tons and tons of research from the last twenty-five years on drug treatment courts, and we can be very confident, at this point, that drug treatment courts, when implemented correctly, reduce the risk of re-offending, keep people in treatment longer, promote recovery, and all of the things that we’re trying to accomplish in the justice system.
There is less research, as Ruby mentioned earlier, that’s focused specifically on veterans treatment courts, so one area that we need to continue to push in the next decade is to bolster the amount of research that’s specifically geared toward veterans treatment courts, verify, as we’ve done in the drug court world, that we’re getting the results that we want to see, and create tools, like we’re creating in this veterans treatment court enhancement initiative, to help these courts make decisions that are rooted in science and help to get the best long term outcomes for the justice involved veteran population.

Leonard Sipes: I would imagine somewhere along the line what we want is for every court system in the United States to have a veterans treatment court component to it, correct? I mean if we’re expanding the reach of the criminal justice system into dozens of different specialty courts … Here in Washington, DC there are probably seven specialty courts dealing with domestic violence, dealing with child custody cases. This is something that we see, I would imagine, expanding to every court system in the United States. I would imagine if there’s any particular group of individuals that people feel some sense of allegiance towards, it would be our veterans.

Aaron Arnold: I think you’re right, and as you mentioned earlier, there seems to be very broad based support for these courts, even more so than some of the other specialized court models, and I think we’ve already established that part of the reason for that is a desire to help veterans who have volunteered, as Greg was saying earlier, and risked their own lives to protect all of us, so there’s definitely plenty of reason that we want to see these courts spread, and, again, part of the reason for creating these specialized risk need tools and other tools to support these courts, is so that we can facilitate their spread in all kinds of state, and county, and local jurisdictions that want to create them.

Greg Crawford: Len, real quick. I just wanted to say that, building off what Aaron just talked about, NIC’s vision for this, and I’m hoping BJA and CCI, I’m pretty confident to say that this is our vision, to have this risk needs assessment tool and protocol be the standard for the field. We’re trying to, as we talked about, develop the science, and we want to make this available to the field, and think Ruby can talk about the funding opportunities that would support this tool.
Leonard Sipes: Ruby.

Ruby Qazilbash: Happy to. Every year, the Bureau of Justice Assistance releases a drug court program solicitation, and courts can come in for funding to implement brand new programs, to enhance existing programs, and that means ramping up your capacity and the types of services that are being provided, to ramp up the number, the percent of the arrestee population for whom this is a good option, has the option to go through a drug court or a veteran treatment court program.
I, also, just wanted to mention that for the past couple of years, the Bureau of Justice Assistance has seen a new appropriation, a line item to the tune of five million dollars that is aimed just for support for veteran treatment courts, so we’re, also, seeing an increase in appropriations to be able to support these courts.

Leonard Sipes: Where are we going with this in terms of growth? Right now, we’re talking about five million dollars from the Bureau of Justice Assistance. You agree with me, that we would like to see this in every jurisdiction in the United States, and an opportunity for every veteran to partake in these sort of programs?

Ruby Qazilbash: I think that is a noble goal. I think we’ve got thirty-three hundred counties around the country. We’ve got pretty close to that in the number of drugs courts, and I think you need to look at your population. If you have a sizable amount of veterans, then it makes sense to develop a track where you can attach these resources, and we should talk about some of the things that make veteran treatment courts different than drug courts.

Leonard Sipes: Please.

Ruby Qazilbash: Greg started out by saying these are hybrid drug and mental health courts. I think that is one potential difference. There are a lot of resources and partnership that come from the Department of Veteran Affairs, and access to benefits, and supports, and services through the VA that are attached to these courts in most jurisdictions. The idea, the mentor is new, and I think is not a part of most drug courts around the country, and I think a theme or a trend, and Aaron or Greg could talk more about this, but the people that choose and self-select to work in veterans treatment courts oftentimes are veterans themselves: judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and others that support the services within that court, so there’s a camaraderie, and there’s a feeling as if we want to support our fellow veterans to heal, to recover, and to stay crime free.

Leonard Sipes: I have a friend of mine, who fought at the Battle of Iwo Jima during the Second World War. He’s a veteran, and he’s not being taken care of in terms of his medical needs, and I was assisting him in terms of trying to get him the attention that he was looking for, and I didn’t have to search far. All the veterans’ groups that I contacted and said, “Look, we’ve got a World War II ex-Marine who fought at the Battle of Iwo Jima and survived, and he needs help,” and, boy, that help came rather quickly, so within the veterans community, there is support across the board for fellow veterans, is there not?

Aaron Arnold: Absolutely. What we’re seeing when we go out into the field is, as Ruby mentioned, mentors. There’s not a shortage of mentors out there. Veterans volunteer to help other veterans, and they live by the motto to leave no veteran behind. You go into the courtroom, and a veteran is immediately assigned a mentor, and the mentor will take him in the hallway and they’ll start talking to them. They’re not part of the veterans treatment court team. They’re there to help them through the labyrinth of the criminal justice system.
A veterans treatment team will consist of a judge, a prosecutor, defense, probation, court coordinator, and critical to the success of these programs is the US Department of Veterans Affairs and the community treatment providers. Basically it’s the court system, the VA, and the community treatment providers working together for a common goal, but the mentors are really as, Judge Russell called them, in our live broadcast, the secret sauce. They’re the ones that really make this thing work. They fill in the gaps, get them a mattress, a bus ticket, help them overcome the obstacles, have a cup of coffee and just talk them through it, and that is very unique to these diversionary programs. That doesn’t happen, as Ruby mentioned, in other courts.

Leonard Sipes: No. We have our own mentors here at the court services of the federal supervision agency, but there is not enough of them. That’s the thing that I find really interesting about veterans treatment courts is that there always seems to be that league of veterans, who are willing to help this individual in trouble.

Aaron Arnold: Yeah. I’ve been out to several sites. I’ve been to a couple of national conferences, and without a doubt, everybody I’ve come across is not just collecting a paycheck.

Leonard Sipes: But theses are volunteers. This is what I’m talking about.

Aaron Arnold: I’m talking about both the people working in the courts, and, also, the volunteers. Volunteers are committed to helping other veterans.

Leonard Sipes: This is a mission. This is just not a criminal justice program. This is a mission. These are people who are wildly enthusiastic about veterans treatment courts. This is something that’s growing rapidly. Fastest growing program I’ve seen, and different people that I’ve talked to about this concept, you can have an individual veteran before the bench, and find himself or herself with not just a mentor, but two, three, four, five mentors. That’s exciting, and that’s why I’m predicting that veterans treatment courts is going to continue to grow like wildfire, and continue to show good results, because of that treatment team, because of the volunteers who are willing to help that individual. Aaron.

Aaron Arnold: I agree with you. One of the things that we see at the Center for Court Innovation in the last twenty years, is a little bit of fatigue sometimes with the fact that, as you mentioned earlier, the creation of all these specialized court parts. There are people who wonder why do we need so many specialized court parts, and are we going to have a specialized court part for everything under the sun, but with these veterans courts, whatever you’re feeling on that question, is with these veterans treatment courts, we see that having veterans together with other veterans, supported by mentors, supported by, as Ruby said, staff and judges who themselves oftentimes are mentors and have requested to be part of this team, it creates a special environment that gets better results, and, at the end of the day, I think it’s hard to argue against a system that gets better results and treats people in a more thoughtful, humane manner, and gets them the support that they need.

Leonard Sipes: Judges seem to have a magical place within the criminal justice system. We, within the adult correctional system, can intervene in the lives of individuals all day long, but nothing seems to get the attention of the individual before the bench as a judge does, so a very involved judge seems to be the secret sauce in some ways, as to why specialty courts work. Anybody want to take a shot at that?

Ruby Qazilbash: That bears out in the research. I think some of the strongest research effects are seen in judicial interaction with a participant in that court program. It is the way that they interact, the eye contact that they make, the amount of time that they spend with that individual, remembering personal details about the individual’s life, celebrating successes or milestones that they’ve been able to reach has borne out to be very impactful, and definitely have better outcomes for those folks.

Leonard Sipes: I would guess as well is that the reason why this is growing like wildfire, is that judges themselves seem to have that magic ability to bring the entire criminal justice system together for change in ways that others within the executive branch cannot. Judges have a way of producing these specialty courts or veterans treatment courts. Maybe it’s because of the judges themselves that this is growing as quickly as it is.

Greg Crawford: That’s exactly right. In fact, you said exactly what I was thinking, is that … You were asking earlier about where do we see the growth going. In many cases, it is the motivated judge at the local level, who is a veteran, or has family members who are veterans and has a special place in their heart for this kind of work. They’re oftentimes the ones who are driving the creation of these programs and making them successful, rather than having a statewide administrative decision making process. These are oftentimes locally driven initiatives, because people care about serving their veterans.

Leonard Sipes: Ruby, we’ve got about a minute left.

Ruby Qazilbash: I was just going to add, I think this is an area that we can learn from drug courts. Drug courts began with a leader judge in that community or judicial district, that got a team together and used the power, the authority of the bench to be able to do that. When drug courts became institutionalized in communities, and that started to be a rotational judgeship, or you had people that didn’t self-select into those positions, sometimes you lose some of that secret sauce, and so I think we need to learn from the drug court movement, and make sure that we’re setting up veterans treatment courts in a way that they’re sustainable.

Leonard Sipes: Ruby, you’ve got the final word. I find this to be a fascinating concept, an encouraging concept and I really want to thank Aaron Arnold, the Director of Treatment Programs at the Center of Court Innovation, Greg Crawford at the National Institute of Corrections, and Ruby Qazilbash, the Deputy Director for Justice Systems Policy at the Bureau of Justice Assistance. Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. We appreciate your comments. We even appreciate your criticisms, and we want everybody to have themselves a very, very pleasant day.



Parole in America

DC Public Safety Radio

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Leonard: From the nation’s capital this is DC Public Safety I’m your host Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen today’s show is Parole in America and today’s guest is Beth Schwartzapfel. She is a staff writer for the Marshall product Beth welcome to DC Public Safety.

Beth: Thanks for having me.

Leonard: The Marshall project give me a quick overview.

Beth: We’re a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers the criminal justice system. We’re very much like a traditional newspaper magazine where all of us come from a world of newspapers and magazines but we don’t rely on advertisers we just rely on foundations and readers to support us.

Leonard: To my listeners I go to the Marshall Project every single day. They give us a nation of news throughout the United States and throughout the world, it’s extraordinary interesting again You wrote an article Life Without Parole and I’ve read it several times give me a quick summation.

Beth: Basically we took a look at the system of parole boards across the 50 states in our country and what we found was we’re in this area where there seems to be this political consensus from both sides of the aisle perhaps there is a temporary pause in that consensus as the Republican Presidential candidates battle it out. In any case, until the primary season heated up there seems to have been a political consensus from both sides of the aisle and from all walks of life in this country. That our criminal justice system has gotten out of control. There’s too many people in prison, that when they go they go for too long. That there’s this net that ensnares too many people for way too long for low-level crimes. There’s even been some talk that even for more serious crimes people are there for too long, there’s not enough rehabilitation and they’re not getting out with enough tools to succeed in the outside world.

As we’ve sort of began to examine each step in the process we are having this national conversation about policing, we seem to be having a national conversation about sentencing. There is this giant part of the Criminal Justice System that nobody had really taken a look or accounted for and that’s parole boards. Because in so many cases in this country how long a person serves in prison is actually not decided by a judge or a jury but actually by a parole board.

Leonard: For the initiated, give me a definition of parole and why it’s different from maxing out which we know is mandatory release and probation. What is parole?

Beth: In many states when someone is given a sentence for a crime or in some states it varies what type of crime whether they’re given this type of sentence but it’s called an indeterminate sentence. That means they might be sentenced to five to ten years, or 25 years to life. What that means is they could be released at any time in that window. In a five to ten years sentence they could be released at 5 years, 6 years, 7 years, 8 year, 9 years, 10 years. The decision about when in that window they get released is made by a parole board.

Leonard: Now let me see if I can summarize this, my impression is this, is that during the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s parole was used a lot and the whole concept was isn’t it better to have this person prepared. Ordinarily the person in the prison system goes through GED courses, vocational courses, substance abuse courses if they are available. They behave themselves while in prison and the parole board rewarded them with an early out in lopping in some cases a significant number of years off of their sentence and releasing them under parole supervision. That at one time was the mainstream method of getting out of prison in the United States and that has shrunk considerably, do I have that right?

Beth: That’s precisely correct. The one thing I will say is at that time it wasn’t even really considered early release because when a judge would sentence somebody that judge would sort of in the back of their mind know that it was in all likelihood that the person would be released at some early point in their sentence if they could prove that they were rehabilitated because that’s just kind of how the system works. Early release is often used interchangeably with parole but I would say that since parole is built into the sentence anyway it is not necessarily early.

Leonard: Good point. But you agree with me that it’s declined and declined dramatically throughout the years and now we are re-examining the use of parole now.

Beth: Considerably. In the 1970s somewhere in the neighborhood of three quarters of all American prisoners were released by parole boards. The number now is somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 quarter.

Leonard: What happened?

Beth: A number of things happened, the short answer is the 1990s happened, the tough on crime era. During the tough on crime era there seemed to be this political move towards parole being seen as soft on crime. Parole being seen as we just talked about as early release. Governors who were looking for a way of posturing that they were not soft on crime, would move to abolish parole, not just governors of course legislators too. During this time period parole was abolished in more than a dozen states. In other states that maintain their parole board’s, parole became increasingly hard to get. Part of the reason for that is parole board members are by and large political appointees. In 44 States they are appointed entirely by governors and then almost all of the remaining States they are appointed at least in part by governors.

In many of those states they’re also confirmed by legislators. The parole board members were and are explicitly sensitive to political wins let’s say. During this era when the public was calling for more cops, more prisons, more jails, locking more people up, the parole board was very sensitive to that. So here if somebody came before that would have been a shoo-in for parole, somebody who had really cleaned up their act and did a really good job in prison the parole board would say no way I’m letting out a murderer because this is going to be in the paper tomorrow and the Governor might boot me off the parole board.

Leonard: In the state of Maryland about 20 years ago where I was Director of Public Relations for the Maryland Department of Safety and Correctional Services. Some of my agencies were a piece of cake like the law enforcement agencies, the correctional agencies were a bit tougher but I also represented the parole board in the state of Maryland. I spoke to the various chairs of the parole board, the parole commission throughout my years there. We were all startled buy all the headlines throughout the country about the parole board getting in trouble because this person went out and committed another violent crime. The fear and the acknowledgement of the political liability of releasing folks with history of violence became real. My guess is that if we experienced that in the state of Maryland that experience transcended the state and one throughout the country.

Beth: Certainly and continues to this day. I heard from an inmate in Ohio who went to a little in-service training that the parole board put on for inmates who are eligible for parole to sort of help them to understand what to expect. A large part of the training was this news clip they all had to watch about this guy who got parole and went out and killed somebody. The parole board members as part of this presentation talked about what a very complicated position they are in politically speaking. How they are public servants accountable to the public and the public doesn’t want to see people like them released. Certainly this is a reality every where you go.

That said when you talk to experts who study the issue they all say look you’re dealing with human behavior it’s impossible to expect a parole board to never make a mistake. It’s even incorrect a lot of the time to call them mistakes. Sometimes the parole board does overlook some major red flags or doesn’t have processes in place to get paper or some kind of paperwork that would have indicated the presence of a red flag. More often than not the person really does seem in the board’s best estimation to be rehabilitated.

Nobody has a crystal ball and every parole board member that I spoke with told me this. It’s just impossible to think that they’re never going to release somebody who goes on to commit a crime. It’s just human nature. When a criminologist at Temple University sort of did this post-mortem of the parole board there after one of these incidence, he looked at it and he said the board was just doing their job, they didn’t do anything wrong and it’s unreasonable to say that we should no longer parole people because occasionally somebody goes out and commits another crime. That’s just going to be if you’re going to have parole then that’s just inevitably unfortunately, going to happen from time to time.

Leonard: We’ve been in agreement throughout the program let me try something else. I’ve spoken to a lot of people in the criminal justice system. My counterpart’s spokespeople throughout the country over the course of last 10, 20 years. This is something that I think is somewhat accurate that every Governor has spoken to every Secretary of Public Safety, every Director of Corrections in every state throughout the country saying we are spending way too much money on corrections. I need money for roads, I need money for universities, I need money for education. I need money for all sorts of things and all I see from the corrections budget is that it goes up and up and up. Somehow some way you’ve got to figure out a way of operating and decreasing your budget what can you do. Part of that decreasing of that budget, the decreasing of the prison population would be a reliance upon the parole board to release more people, am I right?

Beth: Certainly. I think there has been instances in recent years of positive ways to implement that kind of strategy and not as positive ways to implement that strategy. For instance, the parole board chair in Nebraska testified to the legislature there that she felt pressure to release inmates that she didn’t feel comfortable releasing. Because the Department of Corrections was leaning so hard on the board to release as many people as possible. These of course were back room hints dropped and meetings where there was subtle or not-so-subtle pressure applied. An alternative way that I’ve seen an approach like that that is in Texas where there was very public hearings where the board through help with some kind of committee adopted a set of target release rates where it was clearly laid out for them that inmates with a certain risk score who had done certain crimes the board should expect to parole X percentages of those people.

When the system is working correctly Texas actually releases a report at the end of each year to show how well they’re meeting these expected benchmarks. Are they actually paroling say, I’m making this number up, but 75% of drug offenders. Are they actually paroling say 25% of violent offenders. Again, I’m making those numbers up but the point is there was this transparent process where the expectations were laid out for the board of how many people in the different categories they were expected to parole each year. Now there are a lots of complaints about how untransparent the Texas system is so I don’t mean to say that they’re doing an awesome job as far as transparency is concerned. What I am saying is that there have been states that have tried to use the parole board positively as a way easing the burden on the number of people that are incarcerated and the millions of dollars that the state is spending on that.

Leonard: Beth I think we’ve nicely set up where the state-of-the-art is now in terms of the parole in terms of the United States. Then I want to get on to a series of questions about the problems in terms of implementing parole. If we have States that are saying to their Secretaries of Public Safety, to their Directors of Corrections you need to decrease the budget, we can no longer pump endless amounts of money into corrections. If we agree to that and we agree that parole is one method amongst many that people are advocating that we use to decrease the pressure on prison systems and to release other people who are deemed not to be a significant risk to public safety then why isn’t it happening, why isn’t it occurring?

Beth: My reporting seems to indicate that it’s largely because of politics. Because the system is set up the way it is, because so many board members are appointed by Governors and confirmed by legislators they are ultimately beholden in some way to public sentiment. Look the average person on the street does not want to see a murderer released from prison. That’s just a sort of knee jerk totally natural reaction of the public. It does not square with the data right of all categories of inmates, murders are actually the very least likely to re-offend probably followed by sex offenders who are also extremely, extremely unlikely to offend. Yet those two categories of offenders are the most despised by the public.

If you have a body that’s responsive to public misinformation, then they’re going to act on that and they’re going to say look it looks to me like you committed this crime in the heat of the moment when you were 20 you’re now 45 you have grandchildren. You have a home to go home to, you have a GED, you have a journeyman’s certificate in plumbing or whatever it is. Get out of here you’re costing us a lot of money and you’re going to cost us even more money as you age. That is sort of the rational evidence-based move for a parole board to take. When you fear that your job is on the line if you make a decision that would be unpopular on the pages the next day then that’s not how you’re going to make decisions.

I did see a number of states that were trying to get away from this model, there are a handful of states where parole board members are civil servants for instance. Where they’re sort of insulated from the political process. There are a couple of states, Hawaii comes to mind where there is a nomination process where it is separate and I think the governor does the ultimate appointing but the names that are floated up to the governor are chosen by this very interesting panel that’s comprised of people from a real mix of backgrounds. Somebody from the state Social Worker Association, somebody from the state’s DA Association. The people who end up in the pool for the governor to choose from have been extremely well bedded and have really deep backgrounds in the subject matter.

Another really interesting system I found was in I believe it was in South Dakota where the coming into prison all inmates have to make a plan for themselves. They sit down with a social worker, there is a system set up where by they layout a map, a road map for their time in prison. They set certain goals and the person works with them to make sure they are realistic goals, such as I will get my GED, or I will complete this anger management class or I will attend AAA every week or whatever that is. If you are found at the end of your incarceration to have been “substantially” compliant with this plan that you made and again the rules of what substantially compliant are clearly laid out. Then you never go to the parole board you just get paroled. If you are not substantially compliant then you go before the parole board and if there are good reasons you weren’t compliant then you can make your case to the board. If you were substantially compliant then there is no deliberation, there is no politics you just get out.

Leonard: Our guest today is Beth Schwartzapfel she is a staff writer with The Marshall Project Beth you wrote this article Life Without Parole it’s an extraordinarily interesting article and I’ll put it in the show notes for DC Public Safety so others can get to it. You and I have been having a running e-mail conversation about the effect of the parole. I took a look at the data and it’s aged data I will admit from the Source book of Criminal Justice Statistics. It indicates that those people who successfully complete their time under supervision that people paroled do better than those people who are mandatorily released. Do you have thoughts on that?

Beth: I have not found any consensus in the community of academics who study this on whether people who are released on parole do better than those who max out. I’ve seen studies that say they do, I’ve seen studies that say they don’t. I’ve seen very passionate academics use data to make the case in both directions. I will say that it makes intuitive sense that people who are released on parole do better but not for the reason you would think. I think advocates for parole board say that people who are released on parole do better than those who max out because the parole board is very good at only releasing people who are bound to do well on the outside. To me it seems clear that the parole board’s are so very conservative that they’re really only going to release people who they know are not going to come back to bite them.

Therefore, of course the people who they release are going to do better. Because they’re just not taking chances. If they have somebody who is sort of a jump call, a jump ball somebody who looks like they might do well but they might not, the way the system is set up right now they’re probably more likely to keep them in then to let them out.

The numbers are going to be higher on parole, excuse me the recidivism numbers may turn out to then be lower among people who are released on parole then people who max out. I definitely heard skeptical people say is this really the measure we want to be using. What do we mean when we say recidivism does somebody say committed a sex crime did they commit another sex crime or do they commit, did they rob the corner store. That’s not to say one is better than the other of course but it is to ask what do we want from our parole boards and what do we want from our criminal justice system?

Leonard: Inst that a question across-the-board I do want to touch upon that for the rest of the program. It is a matter of perception if we have this sense that we’ve got to decrease pressure on prison systems. Some suggest that we over incarcerate it is true that we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. People are saying what can we do and there is a variety of discussions on a variety of issues talking about ways to reduce the reliance upon incarceration. Many at the front-end many at the back end. People are saying parole you should be doing a better job of releasing more people going back to the models during the 60s, 70s and 80s when most people got out on parole. People don’t seem to have a lot of confidence in the parole process and my guess is that because we’re so secretive about what is parole, how decisions are made, how it operates, what it does. I think people lack confidence in the paroling process and I wanted to get your opinion.

Beth: I think that’s 100% true. As the board chair in New Hampshire told me people can’t trust what they can’t see. The interesting thing is the clip that I was mentioning earlier, the news clip that the Ohio Parole Board shows to people to sort of demonstrate why they’re in such an uncomfortable position. What struck me when I watch that news clip is that the television reporter who did that segment was incredibly frustrated by not being able to get an answer from the board about why they released this guy. They weren’t even calling the board out for releasing him. They were calling the board out for not being able to explain why they released him. I really think and this is what emerged in the course of that Temple University study that I told you about earlier, that when the board can explain why they made the decision that they made when they have really clear guidelines they follow consistently and that they’re transparent about.

I think the people have a lot more empathy towards them and understanding for the reason that they make the decisions that they make. In our democratic society if people understand why the boards are doing what they’re doing and they don’t like it they can pressure their legislators or they can pressure their governor to sort of change the way the system works. If we don’t know what they’re doing, if they’re just hiding behind these sort of veils of secrecy then yeah people are going to be extremely frustrated.

Leonard: Here I go back to my Maryland experience in all states of our national … and we have Federal Privacy Acts but every state has a Privacy Act and in every state medical and psychological information are required prohibitions. I could lose my job and go to prison if I gave out information on an offender that dealt with medical and psychological information. Some states such as Maryland had a sociological provision which what is sociological. If you have all of these privacy laws and all of these restrictions on what you can give regarding a particular offender, how can the parole board’s be open and honest.

You can have a person with a raging substance abuse history, or raging cocaine history and maybe through the process he has gone through the prison system he’s no longer testing positive, he’s been through all of the courses so he seems to have his drug substance abuse problem under control. That may be a really decent reason as to why the parole board chose to parole him considering that there’s very strong evidence correlating the degree of substance abuse and criminal activity. There’s a good reason for moving this person along giving, this person an opportunity but you can’t talk about that.

Beth: I would say that’s never prevented our criminal justice system from transparency before. That kind of material is routinely introduced into evidence in criminal trials and all of the records for criminal trials are public records. I don’t see why the parole board needs to operate under different rules than any other players in our criminal justice system.

Leonard: Because a Judicial System operates under a different set of rules than the executive system. The executive branch of government which we all belong to make these required prohibitions.

Beth: Well what some people would say, what I heard from some people who are calling for the abolition of parole boards for instance the model penal code which is this very influential document written by legal scholars and is revised every number of years. The most recent revisions of the model penal code calls for ending the system of parole and instead implementing a second look system. The Colson Task Force also recommended a system like this a second look system that transfers the function of the parole board back to the Judiciary where after people have served a long portion of a long sentence, they can go before a judge who can evaluate whether circumstances have changed enough to warrant a changing of their sentence. It’s for precisely that reason that our judicial system has all these rules in place to protect and safeguard people’s constitutional rights. Since parole board’s don’t operate under those same safeguards they’re feeling, the feeling of these critics is those kind of decisions really belong in the courtroom.

Leonard: We are going to be doing to radio shows in the near future on the Colson Task Force called reforming Federal Corrections. We’re going to be touching upon all of that in the near future with people, with members of the task force. In the final analysis what we need is a way of mechanism for taking individuals who are of reasonable risks and moving them through the criminal justice system, assuming that they’ve done well on prison. Assuming they’ve taken the proper courses. Assuming that there has been victim input, assuming that they have bettered themselves as much as you possibly can considering the lack of services within a lot of prison systems. They become reasonable risks and society should expect those reasonable risks to take place as we did again, throughout the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80s. Am I right?

Beth: I know as a reporter I’m not here to make policy prescriptions but yes that’s what many people who are calling for the reform of parole board’s are calling for precisely that.

Leonard: The whole idea is as you said a set of specific criteria that if they meet that criteria the presumption would be the presumption to release. If a person went infraction free in the prison system and considering how crowded our prison systems are, that’s very important in terms of running safe and sane institutions. If a person had no infractions, went to his GED courses or completed them, got his plumbing certificate, completed substance abuse. Then the presumption at a certain point from a statutory point of view this is something and acted from a general assembly would be that unless there was a compelling reason that person probably would be released.

Beth: Correct, that is the system in South Dakota and what I will also say is that if you talk to wardens and correctional administrators they all say that a predictable parole policy is a really great behavior management tool. Because if people know and trust that if they follow the rules that they will be awarded parole accordingly. Then they’re much more likely to follow the rules and do what they’re supposed to do. Whereas in states where parole feels arbitrary, like some guys who follow the rules get it and other guys don’t for reasons nobody can’t quite discern. Then it no longer seems like a good incentive to do the right thing. It’s kind of a crap shoot if you do the right thing whether you’re going to get parole or not.

Leonard: Where do you see parole in the next 10 years along the lines of the model that we’ve been discussing?

Beth: That is a really good question. I’ve seen the one place that there seems to be some movement on changing their parole system is Virginia. Governor Terry McAuliffe called a some kind of commission to study whether the state should reinstate it’s parole board. Virginia was one of the states that abolished parole during the 90s. That commission is currently hearing testimony and studying and I honestly don’t know what they’re going to decide to do. Because there is a really big debate going on, if you can call a handful criminologist studying this tiny corner a big debate. But among those that study it there really is a debate of whether it makes sense to rely more heavily on parole as a way to control prison populations.

Assuming you can reform the lack of transparency and the lack of accountability and sort of systematized the way parole board’s do business. Then on the other side of the debate there’s people that just say there’s not enough constitutional protections, there’s just no way to not have the whole process be tangled up in politics. It’s better to just jettison it altogether and build a second mechanism into the judiciary. I really don’t know what direction it’s going to go in.

Leonard: Transparency becomes the key because the average citizen sees a transparent process and understands where they’re going with it, they’re going to be more prone to accept it.

Beth: I certainly think so and one thing I will say is there is this researcher in Canada his name is Ralph Ceron and he’s piloting this structured decision making model that really allows for a new and interesting level of transparency.

Leonard: Our Guest today has been Beth Schwartzapfel she’s a staff writer for The Marshall Project, Ladies and gentlemen this is DC Public Safety we appreciate your comments we even appreciate your criticism and we want everyone to have themselves a very pleasant day.