New Model Reimagines National Parole And Probation Practices To Break Recidivism Cycle

Earning probation or parole may be challenging, but having it revoked is surprisingly easy – clogging prison systems and derailing an individual’s ability to build a productive life. Nationwide, one in four state prison admissions in 2017 were a result of a technical violation by someone on supervised release. Failing a drug test, breaking curfew, missing a check-in with a supervision officer or skipping work can all land someone behind bars.

With support from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), UNC Charlotte Professor Shelley Johnson and her colleagues are building and piloting a novel approach they hope will break the cycle of recidivism and lead to a new national model for parole and probation practices. 

“Community supervision in the United States was developed to keep people out of prison, so they could be productive members of society,” said Johnson, a faculty member in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology. “Yet, we find that probation and parole are more like a pipeline to prison instead of a path to redemption, particularly for Black and Latinx people.”

With $3.97M in funding from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the DOJ’s research, development and evaluation agency, Johnson and colleagues intend to reduce revocations of parole and probation, improve people’s reentry into society, and cut the number of people committing additional crimes. The team’s proposal was the sole project chosen in a highly competitive national search for innovative solutions.

The project will design, implement and robustly test what is called the Organizational Coaching Model. The work shifts the focus of probation and parole practices from managing people — in a referee approach — to coaching people through the process of behavioral change.

“The evidence-based model would restructure probation and parole officers’ roles and transform the agencies where they work,” explained Johnson. “It requires the agencies to adopt a more flexible and adaptable culture that supports officers in their changed roles.”

Shelley Johnson’s research focuses on identifying and developing effective interventions within a variety of correctional settings, specifically the development of best practices with offenders, primarily based on social learning theories. 

Disrupting the status quo

Part of the uniqueness of the project developed by Johnson and her colleagues is it includes both research and implementation. The research team will draw from what is known as the risk-need-responsivity model, which assesses each individual’s unique needs and risks for reoffending when determining support and intervention tools. They also will incorporate community supervision practices that have shown success and will use organizational design and implementation science tools.

Justice System Partners will build and implement the coaching model. The probation and parole coaches will be trained to work with each person they supervise to create a success plan designed specifically for behavioral change. An officer-as-coach is interested in helping the person on supervision be successful while on supervision and later – securing a win for everyone. In addition to social support and feedback, people on supervision will have personalized plans for improving skills.

“The criminal justice system is just like any other system, built to maintain the status quo,” said Justice System Partners principal Brian Lovins, a co-investigator with the project. “If we are going to be able to disrupt the status quo we will all need to work together to redesign, implement, study, and hopefully replicate a new type of system that helps people involved in the criminal justice system find successful paths towards success.”

Collaborating to build a national model

A steering committee of NIJ staff, criminal justice stakeholders, people on supervision, national experts, and members from the broader community will help implement and test the model.

Justice System Partners will also create an implementation package to help probation and parole departments across the country adopt the model to improve outcomes. Bowling Green University researchers will oversee implementation of the model and track its fidelity over the course of the study.

Johnson and her team, which includes researchers from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Vanderbilt University, will evaluate the effectiveness of the model. The evaluation will document the impact of the model on agency and officer practice, disparity, revocations, and costs. Data will come from stakeholder interviews, officer surveys, audio recordings, officer case notes, administrative data and other sources.

The current project has significant implications for policy and practice. Through its design, implementation, and testing approach, this project is expected to help correctional agencies transform policy and the way they operate to become more effective. If the model proves effective, agencies nationwide could take lessons learned to redesign their systems.

“Putting up roadblocks and barriers for people who are engaged in the criminal justice system does nothing but make our communities less safe,” Lovins said. “The coaching model is an opportunity to try something new, an opportunity to invest in people who have been marginalized in our society, an opportunity to help find ways our system can improve successful outcomes for people on supervision.”