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Does Anything Work in Parole and Probation?
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 07/23/2018

Paroled Introduction

When I became the Director of Public Information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety, a law enforcement and correctional entity, one of my twelve agencies was the Maryland Division of Parole and Probation.

When I asked the director what the purpose of parole and probation was, he replied that it was to enforce the dictates of the courts and parole commission. There was no mention of reduced recidivism or crime control or the provision of services.

I discussed this conversation with the Secretary of Public Safety who asked, “Just what the hell am I getting for my millions of dollars invested?” He suggested that parole and probation was adrift without a clear mission or purpose beyond an inexpensive way to process millions of offenders. Seventy percent of our prison intakes were violators from parole and probation.

I’m not quite sure community supervision has progressed beyond this discussion.

Is There A Clear Purpose?

The recidivism and treatment data below suggest that community supervision continues to lack a clear purpose based on evidence as to what works which is why some agencies embrace a law enforcement mission, some preach the benefits of a social work approach, and yet others want the majority of offenders lightly supervised with a focus on the top twenty-thirty percent posing a risk to public safety.

We can’t even agree as to what to call people on supervision, offenders, clients or justice-involved people. Most crime victims hate the use of the term, “clients.” They see it as demeaning to their trauma.

Some suggest that parole and probation agencies are aimlessly grabbing hold of sparse data that fit preconceived notions as to what people on community supervision should experience. But what you fervently believe and what is provable are two different things.

There is no national consensus for parole and probation agencies. My friends in the field will dislike me for these statements, but nevertheless, I believe they are true.

As We Celebrate(d) Parole and Probation Week (July 15-21, 2018)

Pretrial, Probation, and Parole Supervision Week from the American Probation and Parole Association justifiably celebrate the tens of thousands of parole and probation agents who supervise and assist those under supervision.

These officers are the on the front lines of supervising the great bulk of people in the correctional system. The job is risky, overwhelming, taxing and complex. They probably know offenders better than anyone in the criminal justice system. But as deserving as they are of praise, what they need is a clear, objective, well-funded mission.

Background-Corrections Population

Out of the 6,741,000 people under daily correctional supervision in 2015, 870,000 are on parole compared to 3,790,000 on probation.

National parole populations increased most years since 2005.

1,527,000 are in prison, Correctional Populations in the US.


The use of discretionary parole has increased dramatically over the last ten years.

The parole population from 2005 to 2015 included the same percentage of active cases (83 percent) when they were supposed to decline due to diversions by the parole commission or agency policy.

Caseloads grew more challenging with more violent offenders. The percent of violent offenders in US prisons increased since 2005. It’s now at 54 percent with many more having violent histories.

The increased use of parole rather than mandatory release means that offenders will be on parole caseloads longer (i.e., paroled at 50 percent of a sentence rather than mandatorily released at 85 percent of a sentence). For those unaware, the sentence isn’t over until expiration while on community supervision.

Thus parole agents (with very high caseload ratios) are handling longer, more violent cases with the diversion of lower-level offenders to inactive caseloads almost nonexistent, Crime in America.


Felony cases went from 50 percent of the probation population in 2005 to 57 percent in 2015, which means that probation is handling a more challenging workload.

Note that most felony convictions in the US do not result in a sentence to prison, Crime in America.

Misdemeanors fell from 49 percent to 41 percent.

All categories of violent offenders grew slightly except for domestic violence. Overall violent grew from 18 percent to 20 percent.

The probation population from 2005 to 2015 included more active cases when they were supposed to decline due to diversions.

Treatment doesn’t exist beyond 1 percent. There may be programs funded by others, but most probation agencies do not control those funds.

Caseloads grew more challenging with more felonies and slightly more violent offenders.

Thus probation agents (with very high caseload ratios) are handling more difficult cases with almost nonexistent treatment resources that they control, Crime in America

Recidivism-Released from Prison

Five out of six state prisoners were arrested at least once during the nine years after their release. This is the first BJS study that uses a 9-year follow-up period to examine the recidivism patterns of released prisoners. The longer follow-up period shows a much fuller picture of offending patterns and criminal activity of released prisoners than is shown by prior studies that used a 3-or 5-year follow-up period.

This 2018 update on prisoner recidivism tracks a representative sample of prisoners released in 2005 in 30 states and chronicles their arrests through 2014. In 2005, those 30 states accounted for 77% of all persons released from state prisons nationwide.

Overall, 68% of released state prisoners were arrested within three years, 79% within six years, and 83% within nine years. The 401,288 released state prisoners were arrested an estimated 2 million times during the nine years after their release, an average of five arrests per released prisoner, Crime in America.


To my knowledge, there is one major and definitive study (based on large numbers of offenders) on state probation recidivism. It focused solely on felony probationers.

Within 3 years 43% of state felons on probation were rearrested for a felony. Half of the arrests were for a violent crime (murder, rape, robbery, or aggravated assault) or a drug offense.

Results showed that within 3 years of sentencing, 62 percent either had a disciplinary hearing for violating a condition of their probation or were arrested for another felony.

In addition, within 3 years, 46 percent had been sent to prison or jail or had absconded.

Fifty-three percent had special conditions attached to their probation, most often drug testing, drug treatment, or alcohol treatment.

The financial penalties imposed on the probationers included victim restitution (29 percent), court costs (48 percent), and probation supervision fees (32 percent), USDOJ.

Treatment Results

An Evaluation Of Seven Second Chance Act Adult Demonstration Programs: Impact Findings At 18 Months, describes the impacts of seven programs that were awarded grants under the Second Chance Act to reduce recidivism by addressing the challenges faced by adults after incarceration.

“The study measured recidivism as involvement with the criminal justice system in the 18 months after that led to re-arrest, reconviction, or re-incarceration. As of 18 months after random assignment, increased access to services for participants did not lead to increased desistance.”

“Whether recidivism was measured using survey or administrative data, those in the program group were not less likely than those in the control group to be re-arrested, reconvicted, or re-incarcerated; their time to re-arrest or reincarceration was no shorter; and they did not have fewer total days incarcerated (including time in both prisons and jails).”

“There is some evidence that those in the program group were somewhat more likely to be convicted of a new crime or have probation or parole revoked…” see Second Chance Act.

I understand that some will imply that treatment efforts didn’t go far enough to address multiple symptoms, and it’s only seven programs at 18 months, but it’s not just this research. Collectively, the data over time indicate that programs simply don’t work for the mast majority of offenders.

Additional Data:

The Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI) was the federal government’s other signature effort using evidence-based tactics and programs to reduce recidivism. It showed few (if any) positive results.

Go to the federal government’s Crime Solutions.Gov database and plug in “recidivism.” There are few prison or parole and probation efforts marked as “effective”.

Per a survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, money for treatment for probation caseloads is almost nonexistent. It was 1 percent in 2005. It was 1 percent in 2015. That’s not to say that some probationers don’t get treatment, but if they do, it comes from external sources, Crime in America.

I cannot remember any US Department of Justice funded data indicating that programs for offenders in prison or parole and probation that rose above ten percent. Most offered results much less than ten percent in recidivism.

When programs are offered to offenders, some work, some don’t and some make things worse. When they do work, the results are generally small, see Crime in America.

There is no indication that the massive caseload ratios of parole and probation agents have been reduced thus making it impossible to be effective. 100-200 offenders to every parole and probation agent ratios are not unusual. These are impossible caseloads to manage.

I am unaware of any data stating that the use of risk instruments to select the “real” threats to public safety is any better than flipping a coin. Risk instruments are the heart and soul of caseload management. Most media reports on offender assessment are negative, Christian Science Monitor.

Even drug and other specialty courts have inconsistent records, Crime in America.

Intensive Supervision

“Studies show that current efforts to reduce recidivism through intensive supervision are not working. Why is intensive supervision so ineffective? Requiring lots of meetings, drug tests, and so on can complicate a client’s life, making it more difficult to get to work or school or care for family members (meetings are often scheduled at inconvenient times and may be far away). A heavy tether to the criminal justice system can also make it difficult for individuals to move on, psychologically. Knowing that society still considers you a criminal may make it harder to move past that phase of your life. These difficulties may negate the valuable support that probation and parole officers can provide by connecting clients to services and stepping in to help at the first sign of trouble.”

“It is unclear what the optimal level of supervision is for those on parole or probation, but these studies demonstrate that current supervision levels are too high. We could reduce the requirements of community supervision—for low-risk and high-risk offenders alike—and spend those taxpayer dollars on more valuable services, such as substance abuse treatment or cognitive behavioral therapy. This would be a good first step toward breaking the vicious incarceration cycle,” Brookings.

Project Hope

Project Hope is a judge involved probation project originating in Hawaii and replicated in a variety of states. It combined frequent contact with services. It showed no reductions in recidivism, Summary.

Decide Your Time (Delaware) Rated No Effects

This was a program for chronic drug-using probationers that incorporated graduated sanctions with incentives to reduce recidivism and drug use among participants.

The program is rated “No Effects.” Implemented in Delaware, the program was shown to have no impact on the successful completion of probation, on re-arrests, or on drug use, Crime Solutions.Gov.


The vast majority of offenders released from prison commit additional crimes beyond technical violations. Significant numbers of felony probationers are rearrested or abscond.

Treatment programs as funded by the US Department of Justice did not reduce recidivism.

Intensive supervision programs show no reduction in recidivism. Specialty programs combining supervision and treatment (Project Hope-Decide Your Time) show no reduction in recidivism.

Considering that the overwhelming number of offenders on correctional supervision are supervised in the community, the data above is, at best, discouraging.

If enhanced supervision doesn’t work, if treatment program results are equally discouraging, then what’s the strategy?

Is there any wonder as to why the government doesn’t fund treatment? Is there any rationale for reducing the almost impossible parole and probation caseloads? Does caseload size really matter if most fail anyway?

Parole and probation agents (and the rest of us) deserve answers. The vast majority are well-educated, smart and savvy people who have intimate knowledge of offenders that exceeds anyone else (including cops) within the criminal justice system.

Yes, we can reduce program failures by lessening supervision standards, and per scores of replies from agents, that’s happening now. But lessening standards has nothing to do with community safety if the vast majority are rearrested or abscond.

Parole and probation agents and the larger society deserve a frank discussion as to the purpose of community supervision. The vast majority of the research indicates failure.

Maybe the conversation I had with people within the Maryland Department of Public Safety decades ago was correct all along, parole and probation serve the needs of the courts and the parole commission for information as to the progress or lack of progress of people on community supervision. Maybe it’s solely about accountability.

I realize that this discussion is meaningless because people will advance their own agendas based on their personal and political philosophies. Those favoring treatment or low levels of interaction or a law enforcement modality will continue to do so without abatement because we lack any national consensus.

If It Was Up To Me-The 60-40 Approach

If it was up to me, I would either put higher risk people (up to forty percent) on GPS supervision, which has best track record as to reducing arrests, recidivism, technical violations and returns to prison), Crime in America, and limit the number of first time or minor offenders coming into the justice system, or put those at the next stage in specialty courts (with the knowledge that even they show iffy results), Crime in America.

Pick the forty percent based on the seriousness of the crime, criminal history, age and age of onset into the justice system. Stop using failed algorithms.

Let that forty percent include an accountability or law enforcement model. Set standards as to the number of technical violations that will result in revocations. Let felony convictions result in jail or prison time. Refer to or institute programs, especially those focusing on mental health and drug treatment. But according to the data, they won’t do much good.

But for the great bulk of offenders in the middle (fifty to sixty percent) maybe the critics are right, maybe they should be lightly supervised (quarterly office contacts), offered referrals to programs, and wait for the inevitable new arrests to be reported to the parole commission or the courts. Hold office visits on Saturdays so not to interfere with employment.

Look, parole and probation can’t be all things to all people. There simply aren’t enough programs and even if there were, rehabilitation efforts are often ineffective. You can’t supervise 150 offenders effectively with one officer. It’s impossible.

The data as to impact is simply awful. Until someone shows us how to do it better, it may be time to admit that efforts to “fix” the fifty-sixty percent are simply a waste of time and tax paid dollars. We need a national commission on offender treatment to forge better outcomes.

People will say that this is an unacceptable approach; offenders need to be held accountable. Sorry, they are not being held accountable now. The vast majority have large numbers of technical violations that result in nothing more than verbal warnings. Offenders are deemed “successful” that do not make restitution or child support or pay court costs or complete community service.

Governors are insisting that correctional administrators reduce their budgets and that can only happen if supervision standards are lowered so more can be declared “successful.”

Divert where possible, supervise with GPS those thought to be a threat, but it may be time to cut our losses for the rest.

You can object, you can cry foul, but given the research, money, caseloads, and programs available, parole and probation doesn’t have a choice. It’s impossible to be all things to all people.

Reprinted with permission from http://www.crimeinamerica.net.

Contact us at crimeinamerica@gmail.com or for media on deadline, use leonardsipes@gmail.com.

Leonard A. Sipes, Jr has thirty-five years of experience supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. He is the Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and the Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. He has a Post Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of the book "Success With the Media". He can be reached via email at leonardsipes@gmail.com.


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