By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety
Every year, it’s estimated that 650,000 offenders are released from the nation’s prisons, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. However, national recidivism rates remain high, with some studies finding that two-thirds of inmates are re-arrested. Upon release, many ex-prisoners are supervised by probation and parole officers (POs) who have an opportunity to help offenders make positive changes and stay out of the criminal justice system.
Some states have put strategies in place to enable probation and parole to help offenders reintegrate into society. This can have a dramatic effect on recidivism rates. The State of Virginia, for example, has seen remarkable drops in recidivism and currently has the lowest recidivism rate among the 45 states that report three year re-incarceration rates for felons at 22.4 percent.
It’s achieved this by making major changes to its re-entry and treatment programs for incarcerated persons. It’s also clarified its mission and vision, and taken steps to empower POs so they can have more meaningful contact with offenders, said Tracy Lavely, who has spent 26 years working for the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC). She started her career in 1989 as a probation and parole officer and is currently Chief Probation Officer in the Fairfax District 29 office, overseeing 52 staff.
When Lavely first started, the state’s probation and parole strategy looked very different. The nation was still reeling from a major crime surge that started in the 60s and 70s when crime rates tripled. “It was a really frustrating time, nothing seemed to work to reduce crime and there was this public skepticism about what probation was doing to stop people from reoffending,” she said. In an effort to appear tough on crime, judges would imprison people for any offense that broke their probation, instead of helping them seek treatment for things like drug and alcohol addiction that often drove them to reoffend.
Clarifying Its Mission
Part of the problem with how probation was dealing with offenders, Lavely recalls, was due to the lack of departmental vision. “When I first started, I don’t remember there being a real vision. The main goal, of course, was public safety, but there was no clear strategy on how we were going to do that.
Today, VADOC has a very clear strategy and understanding of the role they play in public safety. Virginia is at the forefront of preparing offenders for successful re-entry, said Lavely, beginning when an individual is sentenced, continuing when he or she is released from prison, and finishes with their successful completion of probation supervision.
She attributes many of these positive changes to the current VADOC director, Harold Clarke, who was appointed in 2010. “Since then, we’ve evolved,” said Lavely. “We have a strong mission and vision now, and my staff is fully aware of why their work is so important.” It goes beyond just a newfound purpose, though. POs now have a lot more resources and tools in their toolbox to do things that can help offenders make positive changes to stay out of the criminal justice system.
Empowering Probation Officers
When Lavely started her career as a probation officer, the job was largely about the number of contacts a PO had with each person under their supervision. “I would often see 20 people in one day. Appointments only took five to 10 minutes and we were asking the same questions over and over,” she said. “This wasn’t affecting change. We were just concentrating on making sure the offenders adhered to their probation conditions. We would take them to court for every violation. It was very short-term thinking and compliance-driven,” she said.
Individualized Case Plans
Today, the role of POs looks very different. Supervision is driven by case plans, which are individualized plans based on a risk-needs assessment. With a case plan in place, a PO’s contact with an offender is much more meaningful and purposeful as they work one-on-one to reach their personal goals as laid out in their plan. “The case plan helps keep our time spent with offenders focused and helps offenders engage in behavioral change,” said Lavely. “If we can get them to change their behavior, they are more likely to be successful long-term and we will have safer communities as a result.”
New Supervision Practices
The department has also empowered POs with more training and skills. VADOC has implemented enhanced supervision techniques that POs use in their daily interactions with offenders. This new supervision strategy, called EPICS (Effective Practices in Correctional Settings), focuses on seven skills for POs that are designed to hold offenders accountable while also providing opportunities for behavioral change. Officers work collaboratively with an offender to target specific areas that put them at risk for reoffending. “These practices exist to help probationers make better decisions. If they can make better decisions and not reoffend, then we’re creating a safer community and lowering overall recidivism rates,” she said.
Another new supervision tool that eight probation districts, including Fairfax District 29, will be piloting this summer is the Administrative Response Matrix (ARM). This program, which started in the Charlottesville Probation District, helps POs hold offenders accountable while encouraging and reinforcing pro-social behavior. Officers respond to all non-compliant behavior by using sanctions such as mandating urine screens, additional treatment sessions, or increasing the number of supervision visits. This practice reinforces the principle that anti-social behavior has consequences. ARM also enables POs to provide incentives to offenders including verbal or written recognition, or modifications to their supervision requirements.
By empowering POs to respond to an offender’s behavior, whether good or bad, they can help drive overall positive change. “ARM will help reduce technical violations that require returning to court, thus decreasing the department’s costs related to jail and prison bed days in conjunction with probation revocations,” she said.
Improvements in Training
Officer training has also changed dramatically and there’s a much stronger focus on effective communication with offenders. Officers have been trained in EPICS, along with motivational interviewing and effective communication strategies, said Lavely. But it doesn’t end with just being trained on the new skillsets, officers are being continuously coached on how to properly and effectively use these skills as well.
“POs now have so many more skills they can use with offenders to help them work through problems,” she said. “The goal is for the offender to come up with solutions on their own so they learn how to make better decisions in the future. We’re not telling them what to do, they’re working out problems on their own—we’re just getting them to think better.”
When Lavely first started, there were stark divides between what was happening in institutions (prisons) and what was happening when offenders were released under supervision. “I don’t think we had a good understanding of what each other did. Back in the day, I would never think to call the counselors or even the warden, but now people do it all the time when they need to know something about a person who’s about to be released,” she said.
VADOC has focused on encouraging employees to communicate and collaborate. “Facilities and the probation districts no longer work in silos. We all have a common mission. People from prison facilities and P&P are put on committees together and have meetings together—the department is very focused on oneness and making sure we’re all part of the same team,” she said.
Using this Strategy to Continue Filling the Gaps
While these are all positive changes that have had measurable results, VADOC will always have to keep evolving to meet new challenges as they arise.
One of the biggest issues for the department has been working with offenders who have mental health issues. These offenders have many needs and the resources required to assist them are far and few between. Many times, the local community services boards will assist those offenders who have severe mental illnesses, but cannot assist the ones who suffer from less severe problems such as depression and anxiety. There aren’t as many resources to help those offenders. In order to address this gap, the department has started hiring Qualified Mental Health Professionals (QMHP) who can focus on helping offenders with less severe mental health needs. These QMHPs are based in the probation districts across the state and work collaboratively with POs.
Another major issue has been the rampant growth of drug abuse, specifically opiate addiction. There has been an increase in the number of deaths and overdoses among offenders in Virginia as well as nationally. The department is developing strategies to decrease drug abuse for returning citizens including awareness campaigns, re-entry councils, and increasing training to help staff better monitor prescription drug use in the community.
As more problems like these are identified, the department will continue adjusting its strategy to find new ways to deal with them. “There are still gaps we’re looking to fill, but our thinking is much more long-term,” she said. “To me, that’s how our department has really changed.”
About the Author: Leischen Stelter is the editor of In Public Safety, an American Military University sponsored website. She has spent six years writing articles on issues and trends relevant to professionals in law enforcement, fire services, emergency management and national security. To contact her, email IPSauthors@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.