Column: Research team working to find a new way to approach probation and reduce recidivism

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Herald Times on 11/23/2022 by Miriam Northcutt Bohmert, Michelle Ying, Carmen Diaz, Evan Lowder, and Eric Grommon

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The Herald Times’ Laura Lane recently reported on recidivism in Monroe County. In her story, she highlighted the life Mr. Robert Ratts, who has been in and out of jail, treatment, and probation since the early 2000s, accumulating 15 felony cases in nine years.

My colleagues and I are an Indiana University research team that has been working with Monroe County, and other research teams across the nation, for several years now to examine ways to reduce recidivism and improve probation success. We read Mr. Ratts’ and justice system stakeholders’ experiences and perceptions with great interest.

To shed further light on recidivism in Monroe County, we would like to take the opportunity to share findings from our review of 4,300 clients ordered to probation in Monroe County between 2014 and 2019. In our research, we found most clients were in violation of at least one of 20 standard conditions of probation supervision across a supervision term that averaged 12 months. Violations occurred primarily for missed probation appointments and substance use. Sixteen percent of clients were in violation of probation for a new criminal offense.

When responding to violations, probation officers weigh the severity of a violation, the caseloads to which clients are assigned, and client progress. Officers have more discretion in how to respond to missed appointments and substance use violations, but much less when a client has committed a new criminal offense. They often use their discretion to provide clients multiple opportunities for success. In fact, less than half of probation clients had a single violation that led officers to file a petition to revoke supervision with the Court.

Our findings suggest most violations are resolved through internal sanctions, given by a probation officer, and reinstatements to supervision that do not involve additional incarceration terms. Cycles of violations and justice system responses across a supervision term can place clients on a pathway leading to probation revocation, incarceration, and further entrenchment in the criminal-legal system. Repeated sequences of missed probation appointments, missed Court hearings, and substance use violations with or without a new offense shape Monroe County’s revocation and incarceration rates.

Less than 10% of clients follow this pathway. However, as demonstrated from Mr. Ratts’ experiences, this cycle consumes a large amount of justice system, treatment, and social service resources. Our research and the experiences of Mr. Ratts and justice system stakeholders beg fundamental questions of how to interrupt cycles of violations to increase probation success while protecting public safety. To facilitate change, we are working to implement three strategies.

First, probation officers are being trained to improve skills associated with motivational interviewing and case planning. This strategy encourages clients and probation officers to co-produce individualized plans, identify clients’ needs, and break down barriers affecting probation success.

Second, Monroe County justice system stakeholders are working to reduce and revise the standard conditions of probation, a strategy that seeks to move from a “detect and sanction” approach to cultivate a “support and coach” culture.

Third, clients and probation officers will be incentivized to improve successes and celebrate victories. Incentives have been shown to improve client outcomes and we will work to increase their use. Across these strategies, we are collecting feedback from clients, probation officers, and stakeholders to adjust implementation plans and evaluate the successfulness of these strategies.

Based on our findings and current best practices, these strategies will help stem probation revocations and recidivism in Monroe County and elevate the county as a leader in probation supervision reform efforts. Learn more about our prior research in Monroe County: (This link has unlimited viewing)

Miriam Northcutt Bohmert, Michelle Ying, Carmen Diaz, Evan Lowder, and Eric
Grommon are part of an Indiana University research team working to document
and identify ways to reduce recidivism.