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Len Sipes: From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host Leonard Sipes. Today’s show – do parole and probation caseloads have an impact on offender recidivism in crime. To discuss this topic, we have two principles. We have Sarah Cooke-Jalbert. She is an associate at Abt Associates. She is a sociologist and public policy analysis with research interest in Criminal Justice Program Evaluation, Michael Kane. The second guest is a Senior Associate with Crime and Justice Institute at Community Resources for Justice. He’s been working in the Criminal Justice field for the past eight years. They wrote a really interesting piece of research on the fact that caseload size done right seems to reduce recidivism and when I say ‘recidivism,’ I remind most people that that indeed involves reduced crime. So let me, for the next 15 seconds, read the beginning of it and we’ll have an interview with Sarah and Michael.
“A Criminal Justice researcher has studied caseload size to determine whether smaller caseloads improve probation outcomes. With exceptions, the findings have been disappointing. Reduced probation officer caseloads have not reduced criminal recidivism for high-risk probationers and have increased revocation rates.
One explanation is that officers with reduced caseloads do not change their supervision practices when caseloads are reduced. This raised the question – would reduce caseloads improve supervision outcomes for medium to high-risk offenders in a probation agency that trains its officers to apply a balance of control and rehabilitative measures”
To Sarah and Michael, welcome to DC Public Safety.
Sarah Cooke-Jalbert: Thank you.
Michael Kane: Thank you.
Len Sipes: Okay, that was a ridiculously long introduction, but in setting the stage, it’s really difficult, but Sarah, also give me a sense. You work for Abt Associates Abt. In my 42 years in the Criminal Justice system, Abt Associates always seems to have been there and producing some of the better known research throughout this country and throughout the criminological community. So tell me a little bit about Abt Associates.
Sarah Cooke-Jalbert: Sure. We’re based in Cambridge, Massachusetts and we are probably one of the oldest public policy analysis companies and we have, as you mentioned, been doing a number of projects for the Department of Justice and various other government agencies. Mostly in the [INDISCERNIBLE] program evaluation. We also do global international technical assistance and evaluation for various governments and government agencies domestically.
Len Sipes: This research is funded by the Office of Justice Programs of the US Department of Justice. Michaels Kane, give me a sense as to the Crime and Justice Institute at the Community Resources for Justice.
Michael Kane: Sure, Community Resources for Justice is a nonprofit operating in Boston. Our larger organization also operates halfway houses, both federal and state, and homes for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Crime and Justice Institute is a division of CRJ and we work to improve the effectiveness of criminal justice systems nationwide. We provide nonpartisan consulting, policy analysis, evaluation services and technical assistance to improve public safety in a lot of jurisdictions working directly with corrections and community corrections agencies.
Len Sipes: The website for Abt Associates – www.abtassociates.com. The website for the Crime and Justice Institute at Community Resources for Justice is www.cjinstitute.org. Alright, so both to Sarah and Michael, let’s begin talking about this. In the research that you did – again, funded by the Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice – it took a look at parole and probation or, in this case, rather probation caseload size and we said in the introduction that caseload size really does not seem to matter in terms of the research in the past. In fact, reducing caseload size, making it the number that the parole and probation officer or the probation officer in this case has to supervise and to assist, lowering that number in the past seemed to increase the rate of recidivism, but basically what you guys said was, “Well, if you guys lowered the ratio, if you made the caseload smaller, if you trained this parole and probation agent or probation agent in evidence-based practices, if you gave him the top skills, the top knowledge that we had today,” I wonder what would happen. Am I summarizing the research correctly?
Sarah Cooke-Jalbert: I think that’s right. I think one of the reasons that the National Institute of Justice felt that this was important to revisit is that some of the best evaluations in Criminal Justice were done on supervision intensive probation. These were large, random assignment studies that produced some pretty irrefutable outcomes, but as you said, decreasing the caseload size for probationers who are supervised intensively did not seem to improve outcomes and, in fact, worsened outcomes in a lot of ways. The takeaway from that research was both that these were probationers, not in the traditional sense. These were people who were diverted from jails and prisons and put onto probation and supervised in the community very intensively, but also, there were a couple of exceptions to those core findings in a couple of agencies. They did combine the sorts of things that we associate today with evidence-based practices with these reduced caseloads and in those couple of places, they had improved outcomes. So there’s really a foundation for revisiting this now that evidence-based practices have become so widespread in probation agencies across the country.
Len Sipes: So it’s just not a matter of trail them and jail them. It’s just not a matter of enforcement. It has to be combined with services if that person has any chances at all of not going back to prison and in saying that, there were two jurisdictions that you studied out of the three where not only were there reductions. There were significant reductions in terms of the overall rate of recidivism. I think in the Oklahoma City area there was about a 30% reduction in recidivism. In Polk County, Iowa, in one case, was up to 40% in some categories. So that’s significant and that’s what immediately caught my eye and said that I wanted to interview Sarah and Michael today because , ordinarily, when you get successful outcomes for reentry programs, if you will, they generally range in the 10-15% range. These are significant – 30% for Oklahoma, 39% for some categories in Polk County. Those are significant reductions.
Sarah Cooke-Jalbert: Correct and I want to just clarify one thing in that we’re talking about reduction in risk of recidivism, which is a fine point to make, but I think important because it’s a probabilistic kind of thing rather than an absolute these people stopped reoffending. So there’s a little bit of a difference and that’s due to the nature of the study design.
Michael Kane: It’s not a 30% absolute reduction in recidivism, but compared to the control commission…
Sarah Cooke-Jalbert: What it would have been otherwise.
Len Sipes: Right.
Michael Kane: It is a 30% reduction. Yeah, that’s important to point out.
Len Sipes: Okay, but I mean do you…
Sarah Cooke-Jalbert: You’re right. These are significant. You’re right.
Len Sipes: That’s my question. My premise is considering the low percentage rates in so many other programs that I’ve encountered, this seems to be doing significantly better than previous reentry-related research programs. Am I right?
Sarah Cooke-Jalbert: Yes, but I do want to qualify that a little bit because reentry programs are generally dealing with offenders who are coming out of jail and prison and because of that, are at higher risk for recidivism. We’re talking here about probationers who, at least for this particular offense or case, they have not been incarcerated.
Len Sipes: Right, but you are talking about medium to high-risk probationers.
Sarah Cooke-Jalbert: Correct, but probationers in general, overall, are a little bit lower risk than say parolees.
Len Sipes: True, but it’s not unusual for them to have prior incarcerations in their backgrounds.
Michael Kane: Right, the population don’t overlap.
Sarah Cooke-Jalbert: Correct and higher risk probationers often do have a more extensive criminal history. So, yes, we are talking about who are people who are at high risk for recidivism, but not quite as high-risk as a parolee.
Len Sipes: Michael Kane, we talk about evidence-based practices within the confines of this study. What are we talking about?
Michael Kane: Sure, within the confines of this study, we’re talking about three major things. The things that we look for in the sites that we chose were sites that had implemented a third-generations risk and needs assessment and used that risk assessments to target based on risk.
Len Sipes: Figure out who the offender is.
Michael Kane: Right, figure out who the offender is and concentrate probation services on offenders that are medium and high-risk. The second thing we looked for were sites that do some kind of case planning based on need. The third-generations need assessments, they typically generate a list of criminogenic needs and these sites base case plan on what needs are determined by that. The third thing that we’re looking for is sites that train in and practice motivational enhancement techniques. In some cases, that might be like motivational interviewing. So those were the three things that we looked for in terms of [INDISCERNIBLE].
Len Sipes: So it’s basically– they implemented a risk needs assessment. They figured out who this person truly was. They engaged a case management process based upon that risk and needs assessment, which is basically saying, “You’re low-risk. You really don’t need these services nearly as badly as somebody with a high score in terms of antisocial personality or violent tendencies. So we’re going to figure out who gets what based upon their scores in terms of the risk and needs instrument and training the officers there on how to motivate the people on their caseloads to do better.”
Michael Kane: Right.
Len Sipes: That’s the heart and soul of it.
Michael Kane: Yeah and so I think it’s important to know that we’re not saying that that’s all evidence-based practices are or trying to condense them, but we had to make some decisions about what kind of things we were looking for in sites and those are the three things that really stood out to us. They’re also things that are easier as researchers to measure. We can see what the risk and need assessment that they’re doing is and we can see whether or not they target individuals based on their risk level and whether or not they target based on need. They can program evidence that they did the training around motivational enhancement techniques. So those are kind of things that we can confirm. There are plenty of other components of evidence-based practices that are more difficult to confirm.
Len Sipes: Right, but the bottom line of this is that they went through all of this – the case management, the risk and needs assessment, the motivational interviewing – to get them involved in programs. You guys didn’t measure the programs. You measured those things that I mentioned, but all of this is predicated on getting them involved in the programs that were necessary even though you didn’t measure that part of it.
Michael Kane: Right.
Len Sipes: Because that part of it had some methodological difficulties.
Michael Kane: Right.
Len Sipes: Alright, what are we talking about in terms of caseload, Sarah? I mean if this whole discussion and research is predicated on reduced caseloads, what do we mean by reduced caseloads?
Sarah Cooke-Jalbert: Well, I think we mean a couple of things. One is a relative measure. As you know, caseloads fluctuate throughout the country and so agencies have very high caseloads depending on their resource levels and some have more medium size caseloads. I would say almost nobody thinks that their caseloads are too low, but for Oklahoma City, when we introduced the reduce caseload and randomly assigned officers to either the reduced caseload or the regular caseload, during our study, their caseload was about 106 probationers per officer on the regular caseload and 54 on the reduced caseload.
Len Sipes: Okay, basically on probation agent to 54 offenders.
Sarah Cooke-Jalbert: Right, for the reduced caseload.
Len Sipes: Okay and Polk County?
Sarah Cooke-Jalbert: In Polk County, it was a little more complicated to determine, but we’re looking at a little bit higher-risk offenders in Polk County and so we were looking at their intensive supervision programming and their caseload was roughly, over the study period, 30 probationers per officer.
Len Sipes: Okay, about 30:1.
Sarah Cooke-Jalbert: Yeah and about 50 in the comparison officers.
Len Sipes: We should establish again for anybody listening who doesn’t have the context to understand the discussion in terms of caseload numbers, I have personally witnessed in the state of Maryland, which I was Director of Public Relations for the Maryland Department of Safety for 14 years, caseloads of 130:1. These are 130 real cases. If you counted the inactive cases, it was much higher than that. I’ve known jurisdictions throughout this country that have had 200 offenders on their caseloads. These are regular caseloads. They aren’t administrative caseloads or interstate compact caseloads, but regular caseloads exceeding 200 per parole and probation agent. So first of all, do we agree with my assessment as to the comparison numbers?
Sarah Cooke-Jalbert: Yes.
Michael Kane: Yeah, I mean I’ve heard 180. Yeah, I’ve heard all kinds of, what I consider to be, fairly high numbers. So, yes, I think that that’s a good range. It really just differs across jurisdictions.
Len Sipes: It’s amazing as to how any parole and probation agent could ever possibly be effective with those numbers, but we’re halfway through the program. I’m going to reintroduce the two of you and then we’re going to get into – what I consider – the fun part of the program. It took me 15 minutes to set up an understanding of the program and now we’re going to get into the policy implications. Ladies and gentlemen, today we’re talking to Sarah Cooke-Jalbert. She is an associate at Abt Associates. She is a sociologist and Public Policy Analysis with research interest in Criminal Justice program evaluation, www.abtassociates.com. Michael Kane is a Senior Associate with Crime and Justice Institute at Community Resources for Justice, www.cjinsitute.org. Okay, Michael or Sarah, either one of you come in. So to the aid to the mayor, to the aid to the governor, to the aid to the congressional person, to the aid to the parole and probation assistant director, to the different people listening to this program right now, what are the principle policy takeaways from this research that if we lower caseloads and have them do the right thing, we can reduce the number of people coming back to the Criminal Justice system significantly and do I have that correct?
Sarah Cooke-Jalbert: Yes and I want to repeat something that some of the many people of advisors for this project emphasized to me a number of times, which is you can’t just do one. You can’t just introduce these techniques associated with evidence-based practices and keep caseloads the same size because officers don’t have time, as you mentioned. They don’t have time to learn all of these new techniques and still supervise their active caseloads, but you also can’t just reduce caseloads without giving the officers the tools to really make changes and how they supervise probationers. So I think that one major takeaway is that it’s really important to do both and our study kind of highlights the importance of that. We can’t tell from our study which particular components of evidence-based practices that are the most cost-effective or the most beneficial, but what we can say is that this the context in which you should reduce caseloads in order to be most effective for recidivism and probationer outcomes in general.
Len Sipes: Michael, do you have anything to add to that?
Michael Kane: No, I mean I think Sarah has it right. We know that both of these things have to go along together. I think that that is really a key finding here. I think another thing that is maybe less associated with recidivism reduction is that from our discussions with officers that were on a reduced caseload size, they really did reflect that they felt they were better able to use the techniques that they learned, that those evidence-based practices that they have learned, they were able to spend more quality time with the offender and help them to explore their issues that they were really able to do a better job in terms of making referrals. Those things that it seems like probation and parole are turning towards, it just seems like in the cases we were able to speak with the officers that had the reduced caseload that they felt like that extra time really enabled them to employ the techniques that they learned.
Len Sipes: Well, it does take time because I’ve seen both in Maryland and the nine years of being with Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, which is a federal parole and probation agency here in Washington DC. When I was out with one of the – what we call – community supervision officers, what most jurisdictions call parole and probation agents, encountering a woman who basically she was thrown out of her place where she lived. It was violent. It was nasty. Knives were pulled and words were exchanged and she had to escape with her child. I mean the complexity that so many offenders bring to the parole and probation arena requires time. It just required time. If you’ve got somebody who is on their fifth positive for marijuana, yet they’re doing everything else okay, but yet they’re hanging out on the street corner. They’re being a little too loud, the fifth positive for marijuana, it takes time to intervene in that individual’s life and get them into the right treatment modality. These are time-consuming activities.
Sarah Cooke-Jalbert: They’re time-consuming and also things officers feel responsible for. In many cases, they are responsible in terms of job performance and in some cases they’re responsible in terms of liability for the people that they’re supervising and I think one of the important implications or sort of a finding is that in Oklahoma City, the officers who were on the reduced caseloads stayed in their jobs for the length of this study. The officers who had the double caseload, the regular caseload of 106 offenders, they left. They took other assignments. They left the agency. They got burned out pretty fast and they called us and told us that. They said, “Look, I’m really sorry to be leaving the study, but I just can’t do this anymore. I don’t feel like I can do my job anymore because there are too many people that I’m supervising.”
Len Sipes: That applies to most parole and probation agents in the country. That’s my sense of it.
Sarah Cooke-Jalbert: Exactly, exactly.
Len Sipes: I’m talking about anywhere between 80% and 90%.
Sarah Cooke-Jalbert: Right and this study does not cover what the overall retention rate of probation officers in local jurisdictions are, but I think you’ll find that their staff turnover is pretty high. At least, I know anecdotally it is and if you think about the costs associated with hiring new people, training new people to do what’s a pretty responsible job in a community, think of all the money you’ll save if your officers were happy and they stayed and they felt like they were being effective at their job. So I think it’s larger than just finding improved recidivism. I think it’s also a question of is the community safe because I have experienced officers who have a professional commitment that they feel that they can live up to.
Len Sipes: If you’re talking 30% ballpark and another figure and I know it’s no really as simple as I’m making it out to be, but I’m just going to try to make it simple – 30% in Oklahoma in one category, 39% in Polk County. I mean you’re not talking about a lot of people not returning to the Criminal Justice system. You’re talking about a lot of people not going to jail. You’re talking about a lot of people not going back to prison. You’re talking about 700,000 individuals released from state and federal prisons every year. Now, if we could do 30-39% reduction of people not returning to the Criminal Justice system out of those 700,000, you’re talking about saving taxpayers billions of dollars.
Sarah Cooke-Jalbert: That’s right and I think we all know that the level of incarceration in this country is unsustainable physically and that people are going to be released. The question is how well are they going to be supervised in the community post-release, but also how well are they going to be supervised in a community before they get to jail and prison. I think it’s a really important point to make that when people fail on probation and people recidivate while they’re on probation, they often are going into incarcerations whereas they were remaining in the community and everything. The potential, anyway, to be productive, to be employed, to really both contribute to the community and to improve their own lives and those opportunities are greatly diminished once people fail on probation and end up incarcerated.
Len Sipes: Right. Is there a secret sauce, either one of you, in this in terms of your own guts and I know that the metrological community, the research community hates this question, but it’s what practitioners are interested in. it’s all those people I talked about – the aids to the mayors and governors. They’re sitting there and saying, “Okay, I’m listening to this.” What do you think, Sarah and Michael, is the secret sauce the key ingredient that really prompted reductions in recidivism beyond the fact of reduced caseloads? Is it getting them involved, figuring to who the person really is and getting the right person involved in the right treatment modality? I’ll start off with that.
Michael Kane: I mean…can I take a stab at this?
Len Sipes: Sure.
Sarah Cooke-Jalbert: Sure, of course.
Michael Kane: I think that it’s really the application of the risk and need principles, for me, that those individuals that are the highest risk based on an objective assessment – in this case, the third-generation risk and need assessment – that those individuals receive more probation services than low-risk individuals and that we objectively assess what their needs are. One size fits all does not work and I think we know that in probation and parole. We can’t say that everyone should receive substance abuse treatment because while a lot of individuals may have substance abuse issues, that’s not the case for everyone. In some cases, we can be giving them services they don’t need, don’t reduce the recidivism rate and so I think the current climate economically in this country where in governmental budgets we’re making tough decisions, what we need to do is make smarter decisions about who we’re giving what. I think that that’s really at the core of implementing evidence-based practices in probation and parole agencies. We have to use the information that we have – in this case, risk and need assessment – and make decisions about resource allocation based on that so that we’re getting the most for our dollars. I think that’s relates directly to this caseload study because we know that if we supervise individuals on a lower caseload and use these techniques, we’re going to get better outcomes. So it is a tradeoff, certainly. There’s certainly a tradeoff in what we’re able to do with those lower-risk cases, but I think that’s really the takeaway for me.
Len Sipes: I do want to be fair to the research and the listener community. There was another jurisdiction involved, another state involved, but they did not fully implement the evidence-based practices, so they didn’t have the reductions that you had in Oklahoma and Polk County, correct?
Sarah Cooke-Jalbert: Well, yeah and I think something important to note about that jurisdiction is that they, in fact, were one of the earliest adopters of evidence-based practices and they did a really good job when they implemented it in the 90s, but they had a series of fiscal crises and were not able to maintain the continuous feedback loop that’s necessary to keep programming like this going and operating well. In fact, during the period of time that we had data for the study, it didn’t appear that a lot of these elements of evidence-based practices were fully implemented, but afterwards, towards the end of the study, they kind of doubled-down on their efforts to do some training and to improve their programming. Who know? Today, those study results could be really different.
Len Sipes: Could be dramatically different, right.
Sarah Cooke-Jalbert: Right, it highlights the need to not just put something in place and say, “Okay, we’ve got this. We should be good.” It really needs to be a continued effort over a long period of time.
Len Sipes: Got it. Okay, we have one minute left and the question to either one of you is evidence-based practices reduced caseloads do have a way of reducing crime, reducing people coming back into the Criminal Justice system. It’s unfortunate that a lot of states simply are so cash-strapped for money that they have a hard time doing what is, obviously, in everybody’s best interest.
Sarah Cooke-Jalbert: Yeah, when you have incarceration, that’s a fixed cost. You need to maintain your prisons and your jails and probation is not such a fixed cost, so I think in my opinion – this isn’t a fact proven by the study – I think probation is a little bit easier to reduce money for than it is for, say, incarceration, but in a perfect world, I think policymakers could see that investing in probation really pays off when you compare those costs to the costs of incarceration.
Len Sipes: Sarah, you have the final word. Our guests today have been Sarah Cooke-Jalbert. She, again, is an associate with Abt Associates. She is a sociologist and public policy analyst with research interest and Criminal Justice program evaluation – www.Abtassociates.com. Michael Kane is a Senior Associate with the Crime and Justice Institute at Community Resources for Justice. Again, that website there is www.cjinstitute.org. Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. One again, we really appreciate all the interaction. We appreciate your emails, telephone calls. We appreciate the fact that you agree and disagree with some of the observations of our programs. We really like it when you come up with suggestions for new programs and I want everybody to have themselves a very, very pleasant day.