Workloads in Parole and Probation-APPA-RTI International-DC Public Safety Radio

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[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes: From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen, today’s program is on Workloads in Parole and Probation. We have two experts with us today. Dr. Matthew DeMichele, he is with RTI International, commonly known as Research Triangle Institute. He is a Research Social Scientist. The website at RTI is And Adam Matz from the American Probation and Parole Association is back at our microphone. He is a Research Associate, Council of State Governments. Again, American Probation and Parole Association, the website for Adam, And to Matthew and Adam, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Adam Matz: Thank you, Len.

Dr. Matthew Demichele: Yeah, thank you for having me.

Len Sipes: All right, gentlemen, this is a very important topic, this really is. I was watching a CNN program today, a big report about California and their problems in terms of prison realignment. We did a radio show with Joan Petersilia on the California prison realignment issues, and we have employees basically saying that they don’t have the wherewithal to deal with people who violate. They don’t have any options. There’s a real struggle in the state of California for what’s happening in terms of dealing with criminal offenders coming out of the prison system.  I’m not going to get into the details of that, but what’s happening in California is somewhat illustrative of what’s happening in a variety of states throughout the United States. The question is do parole and probation agents have sufficient resources, do parole and probation agents have appropriate staffing levels to deal with the offender population in such a way to help them get the services they need, and at the same time to hold them accountable. Adam, I’m going to start with you. Did I summarize the issue correctly?

Adam Matz: Yeah, I think you did a pretty good job of summarizing it. It is true that across the nation in various pockets, there are obviously issues where folks have exorbitant case-load sizes that are far beyond what’s generally recommended.

Len Sipes: And the problem is that when we’re talking about case loads, now here at the Court Services of Offender Supervision Agency, we’re a federal parole and probation agency here in Washington, D.C., our case loads run on average 50-to-1. Our specialized case loads run anywhere from 20- to 30-to-1, for our high-risk case loads and for our specialized case loads, and we have lot of them, so we have the luxury of having federal funding but in many states throughout the country, ratios of 100-to-1, 200-to-1 and above that are not uncommon. Matthew, am I in the ballpark?

Dr. Matthew Demichele: Yeah, I think that’s exactly the situation that’s going on right now.

Len Sipes: So what do we do? I mean, we have parole and probation. I think parole and probation agents throughout the United States are doing an extraordinarily good job of protecting the public and providing services to people under supervision. We understand that there has to be a combination of services as well as accountability if we’re ever going to lower rates of recidivism, if we’re ever going to protect the public in terms of reducing the number of crimes, but how can a parole and probation agent be effective if he or she has case loads beyond any sense of workability, beyond any sense of efficacy?

Dr. Matthew Demichele: Well, I would say they can’t be successful. I mean, if we’re not going to correctly fund and staff probation and parole agencies, then they’re going to come short of the goal of reducing recidivism. I think what has to happen and what I’ve written about with Adam and with another co-author of mine, Brian Payne, who’s at Old Dominion University, is the idea that we have to look at the things that probation and parole officers are doing and how long it takes them to do those things, and then prioritize them of what we need officers to do, and we can’t continually use probation and parole as kind of the dustbin to sweep up the burden of mass incarceration and then not fund those agents appropriately, and essentially it leaves the officers kind of there holding the bag as they’re trying to struggle to keep cases from going bad.  And just as you had described with the California situation, I mean, while California may be an exaggerated case of what’s going on around the country, it’s definitely not an isolated incident. I know I’ve been doing some workload studies and evaluations in a couple of different states and some different departments, and you do see similar sorts of issues in that officers have these very large case loads, and even while CSOSA has the luxury of having 25 offenders on specialized units, in most departments or at least the departments I’m working with, that’s not the case. That’s what it’s supposed to be but very often it’s more like 50 or 60 offenders.  And so it’s just like your job and my job and anybody else’s job, if they give us too many things to do, we’re either not going to get them done or we’re not going to get them done correctly.

Len Sipes: I want to set this up with a question and that is this, is that California is an extreme case but we know that states throughout the country are working with the Department of Justice, or they’re working with the Council of State Governments or they’re working with PEW, and they’re taking a look at sentencing policies, they’re taking a look at corrections across the board; and the sense that I get from reading these reports is that parole and probation is on the frontline of public safety more than ever before. The time pretty much is now.  Parole and probation, whether we step up to the plate or not, whether we have the proper case load ratios or not, parole and probation is not coming center stage because what these states are basically saying is that we can no longer afford the level of incarceration that we’ve had over the past 10 or 20 years. For the first time, Department of Justice research states that over the course of the last 3-years, prison populations are decreasing not increasing – at the state level, not the federal level, but at the state level – and these individuals are going to be coming to parole and probation agencies in greater numbers. Am I correct in that assessment?

Adam Matz: Yeah. I can take a response to that, if you don’t mind. Yeah honestly, you’re right, there is kind of this realization that probation and parole is a big part of this sort of correctional tie, if you will, and some of the PEW research, some of the BJS data, the Bureau of Justice Statistics data, shows that most of the people under correctional supervision are under some form of community supervision. So most of the folks in the correctional population are under probation or parole supervision, specifically about 4.2 million probation and about 850,000 are under parole. First, there’s about 2 million under prison or jail supervision.  So I think folks have kind of realized that there’s a big part here with community corrections, a lot of potential here that’s not really being tapped into, it’s not being fully realized, and so it’s great to see kind of these resources being directed at sort of the back end of the justice system, if you will. Historically it’s sort of been focused either on police or maybe in the last decade more institutions, so I think that’s a good point to make.

Len Sipes: Well, and the question is are we up to it. The overwhelming majority of people who are in the correctional system first of all, who are in prisons, are going to come out. 97%, 98% of the people in prisons are going to come out, and generally-speaking, they will be on parole and probation supervision. On any given day, what is it, Adam, 75% of the correctional population is under some form of community supervision? They’re not behind bars, they’re with us, and that’s like 7 million human beings combined with parole and probation and mainstream corrections, so we’re talking about what, about 5 million under community corrections, under parole and probation?

Adam Matz: That’s right.

Dr. Matthew Demichele: Right.

Len Sipes: All right, so when we’re talking about corrections in America, even though all the television shows we watch are about, you know, if you go to A&E and the other cable networks, they’re all talking about being inside of a prison, looking at life inside of a prison. The overwhelming majority of the people under correctional supervision belong to us within parole and probation, right?

Adam Matz: Yes.

Dr. Matthew Demichele: Right. Yeah, definitely, I mean 5 million out of 7 million.

Len Sipes: So the question becomes, are we up to it? Are we up to the task? Do we have the sufficient training, resources, and work loads to again, the research says that the need programs, if they’re going to be successful, whether it be work programs, mental health, substance abuse, GED, whatever we have to do to get them involved in programs, that’s a big part of it; but at the same time we have to hold them accountable for their actions. So for that helping role and for that accountability role, are we sufficiently equipped with the work loads to allow that to happen? – And I think the answer is very quickly “no.”

Dr. Matthew Demichele: Well, yeah, Len, I think you did a good of answering your own question. I mean, I think as we’re doing it now, I mean the way things are going now, as we just said, if we’re not going to correctly staff and fund probation and parole, it’s not going to work. – And it goes back to this idea of Martinson’s research back in the ’70s of corrections rehabilitation programs don’t work, and I think a lot of times when a parole leader or a probationer goes bad, everybody’s really quick to point the finger at, you know, probation and parole is soft on crime and it’s not the right way to punish people, but nobody talks about, you know, do prisons work.  I mean, do we really expect that prisons are rehabilitating folks the way that we’re putting them in there, and that we’re not programming folks while they’re in there, and we’re not addressing criminogenic needs or any of the rehabilitative needs? Instead we’re cycling people in and out from prison on to parole and back into prison, and then continuing to just do this revolving door of churning offenders back and forth.  So I think that as policy-makers and different organizations like APPA, CSU,  PEW, and other places have been working with the Department of Justice, because people have realized that this mass incarceration movement that we started from the ’70s till now has not been working. And as you said, we know almost all the people that are locked up today are going to be out one day and they’re going to be walking around our streets, and it’s how best to kind of redefine and reconceptualize what probation and parole is because I think that while your listeners are very aware of what probation and what parole and what those things are, most of the public aren’t. I think most of the public and even a lot of policy-makers don’t even know the difference between probation and parole, and that’s kind of what myself and Brian Payne and Adam, that we worked on with BJ, and BJ gave us two different grants to complete this work, to look at workload and then to actually develop some templates for folks to actually kind of start to measure their workload, how long it takes, because the first thing is to identify what are the things that probation and parole officers do. I think really quickly – not to dominate the conversation —

Len Sipes: No, please. Dominate.

Dr. Matthew Demichele: Well, we all know what cops do, or at least we think we know what cops do, and we think we know what judges do. They sentence people, and cops arrest people and give tickets and those sorts of things. But if you ask people or policy-makers, “What does a probation or a parole officer do?” – I don’t know that people know, and I think that with that said, and I know APPA’s been working to bring about more of a national kind of conversation around this, but then even within probation and parole, the things that happen are so different.  You know, I’ve worked with different agencies and looked to measure the amount of time it takes to do PSIs, and pre-sentence investigation, and in some agencies it take 8 to 10 hours and in other agencies it takes 30 to 45 minutes. So it’s like the same task but when you drill down into that task and look at the specific elements, you see that there’s very different things going on. And I think that what needs to happen and is starting to happen is that more and more agencies are beginning to look at the very specific things that they have to do to meet the conditions of their standards – or the standards for their conditions, rather – and that when we start to apply at least some average or some rough estimates on how long that takes, then you can just add them up and look at the number of offenders you have that fit those criteria and say, well, we either do or we don’t have enough folks to meet this need.  I mean, it’s just like if you have a surgeon and he or she can only do so many heart surgeries in a day or a week or a month or a year, and if you give him or her more than that number, then there’s going to be problems, you know? – And you can kind of use that metaphor for any position, whether it’ a car mechanic, a hair dresser, a professor, an individual doing radio talk shows – it’s like you can only do so many talk shows – and the same with officers. So I think as policy-makers and agencies start to realize this, that we need to start actually identifying, charting, measuring, and timing what it is that probation and parole officers are doing, and then that information can be used to feed back in not only to the officer, to let them see what they’re doing and what’s expected of them and about how long it will take them, feed back into their supervisors and then their agency administrators so that they know how many people they can realistically supervise, stratified by risk and need sorts of issues, right?  And then also that information can continue to go up the chain of command to policy-makers and to funding agencies because right now while whatever the number was, you know, 60^% or 70% of the criminal justice folks are on probation and parole, we know that – and I’m only guessing, and I worked with PEW to collect this data some years ago – I mean, probably 70% or 80% of corrections funds go to prisons, and one of the biggest cost that goes to prisons is the building of prisons. It’s super expensive, and we know that we’re spending $30,000 and $40,000 and upwards, thousands of dollars on average per offender, and we know that probation and parole is much cheaper, and what we need to come to is whether we continue, as PEW is doing and CSU is doing, to continue to divert some of those institutional dollars down into the community so that we can put some bang for our buck behind what probation and parole officers are doing. – And I’ll let Adam or you talk now. I apologize.

Len Sipes: Well, I want to go our break and reintroduce you but the question I want to come back to is, is it fair for society to expect parole and probation agencies to perform these miraculous interventions in terms of providing the services that are necessary and providing the level of accountability that’s necessary to lower rates of recidivism and to keep citizens safe? But ladies and gentlemen, we’re more than halfway through the program.  Again, the program today is in Workloads in Parole and Probation. We have two extremely qualified to talk about this – Dr. Matthew DeMichele. He is at RTI, International Research Triangle Institute. He is a Research Social Scientist – We also have Adam Matz. He is a Research Associate, Council of State Governments, American Probation and Parole Association. – And also, in terms of the research we’re talking about, I’ll put a link to that research in the show notes.  So we have a public expectation. I’ve been representing parole and probation agencies for a quarter of a century now, as well as law enforcement agencies and correctional agencies, but parole and probation, people have an expectation. They are going to say that if this individual goes out and commits a crime while under supervision, the first thing they’re going to do is call me and say – or call my counterparts and say – “What did you do and what didn’t you do? Did you hold this person to certain standards? Were they in compliance with the rules of the supervision? If they weren’t in compliance, why not?”  And so there’s a finger pointing at parole and probation agencies throughout the country immediately, and in some cases justified, but in some cases I’m going to guess unjustified because the workloads and the resources that those parole and probation agencies have are simply inadequate to the task. Either one of you?

Adam Matz: Yeah, I’ll kind of comment a little bit on that. I think it’s an interesting point and this happens all the time, actually. You might have maybe one bad case or one person goes out, maybe it’s a homicide or some other sort of violent offense, and they happen to be on probation or parole, and then it really lights up the news waves and gets a lot of media attention, and then that really adds the stress on the probation and parole agency in terms of, you know, did they hold them accountable and was the supervision adequate and things like that; and then it usually ends up turning into some kind of “get tough” type policies which tend to make things worse, so kind of one bad egg ruins it for everybody.  But I think one thing we have to think about too is the reality of probation and parole, and particularly for probation and parole officers, is that they’re working with a difficult population. I mean, this is a criminogenic population and a lot of them have very disadvantage backgrounds that they’re coming from, and their ability to sort of get their way out of maybe poverty or whatever other issues they have can be difficult, and so some failures in some way is almost inevitable.  We know recidivism rates have historically been pretty high, and it depends on sort of how you measure it and what sort of research you’re going to look at, so you could look at anywhere between 30% and maybe 60% recidivism rates, depending on where you look. So even in the best cases, you’re still looking at about a third failure rate, so that’s kind of a reality in this field. That’s a difficult thing to convey to the public and so that obviously ends up creating some issues.  The other thing I wanted to mention too from the conversation earlier in terms of workload assessments, and really where those pay off for the probation and parole agencies is they provide a numeric, a quantitative sort of look for probation and parole agencies to show to their legislature and show them sort of definitively, you know, this is what we’re lacking, this is what we need. Before it just sounds like people complaining and maybe it doesn’t sound legitimized so what the workload assessments really do is they legitimize this argument that, you know, we’re really overworked and understaffed.

Len Sipes: And Matthew, that was the point of the research, correct? The whole idea was to quantify exactly what parole and probation officers do, how much time it takes to perform specific tasks, and then to look at your overall resources and align them correctly, or go to the state legislatures and ask for additional funds?

Dr. Matthew Demichele: Yeah, definitely. I think it had a two-part kind of agenda. The first part was to actually find out what is that probation and parole officers are doing, and I think that when you do any task analysis – and quite frankly, workload studies have been going on for a very long time. Other fields have been doing them all the time. You look at industry, manufacturing, you look at the medical field, there’s tons of workload studies going on – the nursing field, and if you think about how nursing works, it is pretty similar to the nature of work for officers. So this isn’t something that I created or Adam created. I mean, this has been going on for over a century.  What’s ironic is that we’ve not been doing it in probation and parole but instead what we were doing is we were doing a case load sort of approach where it was like, you know, you had a certain number of offenders, it didn’t matter risk level. You were supposed to do a certain number of contacts with them, it didn’t matter whether that offender needed that or not. Whereas now what we’re calling for is just to fit into what other organizations are doing as well as we’re using this idea of evidence-based practice, we’re using this idea of stratifying offenders based upon their probability of risk, based upon the characteristics that those individuals carry, and we’re seeing that not each offender is going to have the same amount of time spent on them. You know, to do a risk assessment or a PSI on somebody that it’s their first offense versus somebody that this is, you know, on the eighth page of their acts sheet, those two people are going to take very different times.  It’s the same for a surgeon that’s getting reading to remove tonsils as opposed to doing some sort of heart surgery, you know. We have to get to a more nuanced and refined way of looking at what probation and parole officers do, and I think that – to come back to your question that you had just asked – this idea that we are blaming probation and parole over and over again for failures that happen within the correction system, and I think that Adam made a very good point that in some ways – I mean, we can’t expect that recidivism is going to go to zero, you know, and not to continually use a medical metaphor but at the same thing, it’s the same thing, that medical procedures aren’t 100% effective. Well, neither are correctional programs.  But what we do know – and you talked Petersilia, you talked about this, and I know you talked about it with other folks – what we do know is we do know that there are a set if things that can work to bring about behavior change, and by specifically targeting those things on the correct populations, we can maximize corrections dollars.

Len Sipes: Well, if we reduce recidivism rates by 10% to 20%, which seems to be the norm for those programs that are successful, recognizing that not all programs are successful – for those that are, a 10% to 20% reduction in the recidivism rate fiscally saves any state literally tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of dollars, so there seems to be certainly a fiscal incentive for states to do it right, to provide the services that are necessary for these individuals to do well while under community supervision, and it seems to be a fiscal reality that you have to provide enough people out there to administer these services and to contract out for these services.  So if all of us are in total agreement that this reduces recidivism, it dramatically reduces costs to state government and local government, and we recognize that we have to place our resources on higher-risk offenders and do less with lower-risk offenders, if there is this criminological assessment across the board that these are the things that need to be done, why aren’t they being done?

Dr. Matthew Demichele: Well, that’s the golden question, right? I mean, criminologists have been talking about this for a long time, and policy-makers have been extremely slow to respond. Adam kind of alluded to the nature of CJ research and policy-making with knee-jerk reactions based upon media-high types of instances that happen that are very dramatic and get a lot of attention, and then we use those single instances to revolutionize the criminal justice system and create new policies.  But as a public, we’re pretty slow, and politicians are slow to push for becoming more lenient in criminal justice areas. Instead it’s, you know, “we need more prisons, we need more cops,” but nobody is ever saying “we need more” – I don’t know, maybe you have or Adam has heard policy-makers saying, “We need more probation and parole agents.” That’s not something I’m hearing. It’s not palatable to the public, I don’t think. That’s my opinion of why.

Len Sipes: But why is that? That’s the thing that puzzles me because if you go and talk to the American Probation and Parole Association, if you talk to the Council of State Governments, if you talk to PEW, if you talk to the leaders within Community Corrections within this country, if you talk to folks at the Department of Justice – all are going to say the same thing, that we need the resources, we need the person power, and with that we can do things that are very helpful to the states’ fiscal bottom line and save literally tens of thousands of people from being revictimized every year. So I go back to the original question, if there is this massive consensus, is it our fault that we’re not sending out a clear enough message?

Dr. Matthew Demichele: Yeah, well, I don’t know that that’s the issue so much as, I mean, in some ways I think for the public it’s like, you know, punishment feels good. Punishment, that sounds like the right thing to do on the face of it because I think it’s packaged in such a way that the only thing people think about is that punishment and sentences, that it’s always for these extremely violent people. What’s this guy, that he kidnapped and was holding those women hostage in Cleveland?

Len Sipes: In Cleveland, yes.

Dr. Matthew Demichele: I mean, that’s our image and those things are horrible but those are very rare events. The bulk of our criminal events aren’t anything like that, and I think the public’s perception of it is much different. So for the public, this idea of punishment, it seems natural and it seems like the right course of action to do for criminals because they are others, you know. The criminals aren’t us. Criminals aren’t voting populations, you know, is the way we conceive it. We think of them as these other people that we don’t know and that we don’t meet throughout our lives but the reality is is that most all of us know criminals, or have them in our families, or meet them at the gym or the grocery store or whatever. I mean, these are people that we are around, people that have committed criminal offenses, and they’re not all these hyper-dangerous folks that we need to lock up and throw away the key as we started doing throughout the ’80s.  And I think now as the drug war is kind of coming to a halt, this might help kind of start to push folks out of prisons and into the community. And as we start to recognize that probation and parole can be effective, but they can only be effective if they are given the correct resources and if we really understand the staffing needs, and I think that like you said, PEW, CSJ, APPA is an excellent training and technical assistance resources for agencies, and I think that as the government and agencies start to realize the benefits from those folks that they can start to tap into, you know, what those organization can offer to states.

Len Sipes: We only have a couple minutes left. Is the research going to provide a formula for states basically saying, “If you do this, the ratio needs to be that?”

Adam Matz: No, just to comment on that, it will be difficult to make a blanket statement sort of like that particularly with probation and parole just because there’s so much diversity across the states and even within the states. I wanted to point that out that one of the reasons maybe that – because you know, when I’ve been out in the field, there’s instances where folks are just starting to really get into risk assessment now, and we’ve been talking about risk assessment for a long time. It’s not a new thing.  But for some agencies, that really is new, and there’s some very rural areas where they have to deal with maybe four-hour trips to do a home visit. So there’s so much disparity in the field, and also the way the agencies are organized, whether they’re under the executive or the judicial branch. All these sort of nuances just complicate the whole process sort of from a global perspective, or maybe a national perspective. So I think that really complicates, it makes it really difficult to have sort of the unity across the field that I think we’re sort of advocating, if you will.

Len Sipes: Well, let’s end the program on a positive note. I have been in this system, like I said, over a quarter of a century, working with parole and probation agents. I love them. I respect them. I admire them. I think they’re some of the bravest, most dedicated people. They’re generally well-educated, and they’re out there doing a really good and difficult job, and they’re enthusiastic at least when they first come into Parole and Probation, and I think they really do add to public safety, and I think it’s something that, if we’re going to retain these individuals and if we’re going to keep a viable community corrections in parole and probation system in this country, I think first of all we’ve got to thank them, which is the cornerstone of what the American Probation and Parole Association and the Council of State Governments is trying to do. So we can all agree that they are good people doing a good job. They simply need the resources to do a better job.

Adam Matz: I agree completely. In fact actually, just to dovetail into that a little bit, is obviously increased workload and having too much work or too much on your plate, that’s associated with all kinds of other issues too when it comes to workplace stress, burn-out which you’re kind of alluding to, and those have not only consequences for on-the-job sort of performance but also a person’s personal health. So obviously folks need to have the resources to be able to do their job, do it well, and actually also live a high-quality life in general, so definitely.

Len Sipes: Well, in the final seconds of the program, again, the community supervision officers here at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, I am just so impressed with them. I’ve been out with them dozens and dozens of times, and I think they’re miracle-workers, and I’ve been with parole and probation agents throughout the country on trips, and again, they have my admiration.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. Our show today has been on Workloads in Parole and Probation. Our guests have been Dr. Matthew DeMichele. He is with RTI International, Research Social Scientist –; and Adam Matz, Research Associate with the Council of State Governments, American Probation and Parole Association –  Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. We appreciate your calls, we appreciate your criticisms, and we want everybody to have yourselves a very pleasant day.

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