This blog is about 600 words and will take 2-3 minutes to read.
Here’s an irony: Extensive research shows that more intensive supervision of people released from prison actually yields worse results – more recidivism, higher costs, and less public safety.
This conclusion comes from a thorough review of research in the US by Dr Jennifer Doleac, an economist at Texas A&M University. Her report, “Strategies to productively reincorporate the formerly-incarcerated into communities”, covered a wide range of areas such as employment, therapy, substance abuse treatment and wrap-around services. Future posts will discuss some of these other areas.
One of the most striking findings, according to the researcher, was that former prisoners with less supervision after release had outcomes just as good or better than those who were supervised more intensively. As the author put it, “we could maintain public safety and possibly even improve it with less supervision—that is, fewer rules about how individuals must spend their time and less enforcement of those rules”. Even when more supervision also included more services to former prisoners, the results were either the same or worse than for other, similar people who were subject to less supervision. These findings come from several studies, detailed in Dr Doleac’s full report, that used random assignment, the strongest method available for this kind of research.
Why is more supervision less effective?
Doleac writes: “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.”
Canada has done the opposite
These findings stand in contradiction to recent changes in Canada. Under the former Conservative government, the mandate of the National Parole Board was changed so that the emphasis in the parole system was only on public safety rather than the earlier combination of public safety and rehabilitation. The result has been fewer people being released (as described in an earlier blog) and more conditions placed on people on parole. Each additional condition, even if unrelated to any criminal behaviour (such as a prohibition on consuming alcohol), can lead to parolees being re-arrested and charged, or simply sent back to jail without any charge, for a parole violation even though no actual crime was committed.
Dr Doleac points out that “reducing the intensity of community supervision for those on probation or parole is a highly cost-effective strategy. Less supervision is less expensive, so we could achieve the same or better outcomes for less money.”
In Canada, ‘administration of justice offenses’, which are largely made up of bail and parole violations, now make up nearly 25% of all criminal charges, even though people on parole in Canada are highly unlikely to commit a crime. So reduced supervision would not only save money without compromising public safety, but it would help reduce the court delays which are a huge problem in the Canadian justice system.
Less is More
Dr. Doleac concludes: “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.”
Jennifer L. Doleac @jenniferdoleac