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Probation Supervision Doesn't Cut Recidivism, Must Be Improved

Far more people are under community supervision, outside of jails and prisons, as punishment for criminal offenses, than are behind bars.

Despite the guidance, support, and oversight that community supervision aims to provide, these populations are struggling, write Jennifer Doleac of Texas A&M University and Michael LaForest of Penn State University in a new series of papers on research, public safety and justice reform published by Arnold Ventures.

Recidivism and unemployment rates are exceedingly high among those previously convicted. About 71 percent of those released from prison are re-arrested within five years of release, 46 percent return to prison within five years of release and 55 percent are unemployed eight months after release.

To help improve post-conviction outcomes and public safety, policymakers need clear evidence about the effects of community supervision programs and how to make them better.

Existing evidence suggests that increasing the intensity of community supervision does not reduce recidivism, and many targeted supervision requirements do not appear beneficial either. Are there aspects of other successful community programs that could be integrated into community supervision, to reduce recidivism and improve public safety?

Below, we briefly discuss the literature on other types of initiatives and programs that may be relevant to conversations about reforming community supervision.

One option is increasing access to support services. However, research on community support programs has typically found little effect of such programs. Evaluations of intensive case management programs and financial incentives aimed at increasing engagement in drug treatment programs have found little effect on recidivism or longterm treatment retentio.

These disappointing outcomes highlight the importance of rigorously evaluating the programs that communities implement. There is a lot of work to do on this front, say Doleac and LaForest.

A more promising avenue is increasing access to mental health care and therapy-focused programs.

While Multi-Systemic Therapy has potentia,l its effects appear to be highly dependent on the context, population, and program, and we don’t yet understand where it works best.

Among initiatives that target employment, the results are often disappointing, suggesting that other underlying needs (e.g., mental health, substance use treatment, housing) may be the root cause of both low employment rates and criminal behavior. If this is the case, then increasing employment alone may not have a direct effect on recidivism.

Providing financial resources, separate from a job, does appear to help. Several studies show that increasing access to public assistance programs and financial assistance decreases recidivism for high-risk individuals.

Overall, existing research finds mixed evidence on the effects of probation relative to incarceration on recidivism – in some places putting people on probation instead of sending them to prison leads to better outcomes, but in other places it leads to worse outcomes, and in still others it makes no difference.

Based on international evidence, substituting probation with electronic monitoring for short prison sentences has the potential to be extremely beneficial. Releasing individuals from prison earlier, to parole supervision, also does not have clear effects on public safety.

Because additional community supervision requirements appear to have no benefit, our takeaway is that supervisory requirements can be reduced in most settings without any detrimental effect on public safety, conclude Doleac and LaForest.

In terms of supervision requirements or services targeted at clients’ specific needs, so far only sanctions targeting substance use show beneficial effects. Based on evidence from other criminal justice contexts, increasing access to mental health care is a particularly promising avenue for supervision programs to pursue in the future.


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