Community Corrections

Over the past 15 years, the number of people under correctional supervision in the United States has more than doubled. Most of this growth is attributable to the rapidly expanding probation population, which recently reached an all-time high of more than 4 million offenders. In fact, the vast majority of all offenders under correctional supervision are supervised in the community on probation (58%) or parole (11%). Despite their rehabilitative roots, community corrections have been heavily oriented toward surveillance over the past quarter-century. However, high rates of recidivism among supervisees have prompted calls for accountability and use of evidence-based supervision. Substantial evidence indicates that surveillance models that focus exclusively on offender control are less effective than hybrid models that focus on both offender control and offender rehabilitation. For the at-risk population of supervisees with mental disorder, evidence suggests that specialty caseloads are a promising practice. Despite these clearly defined contours of evidence-based practice, most agencies are merely at the cusp of reintroducing rehabilitation in supervision. The process of doing so is likely to be slow but will be facilitated by (a) the use of new risk management technology and (b) gradual shifts in organizational values, hiring practices, and training, to create a significant cadre of officers with hybrid orientations. Officers influence outcomes more powerfully than the programs they ostensibly apply.

Developing Community Corrections and Questioning Its Performance

The roots of probation and parole lie more in social casework than law enforcement. Probation began in 1841, when John Augustus posted bail to release a “drunkard” from a Boston jail, worked with the man for 3 weeks toward rehabilitation, and convinced a judge that the man had reformed his ways and should be set free. He went on to bail more than 2,000 offenders and assist them with employment, housing, and other issues. Parole began in 1840, when Alexander Maconochie developed a “mark system” by which prisoners at Norfolk Island could earn early release for good behavior. By the 1860s, this precursor to modern parole had been adopted in the United States. Over the past 150 years, community corrections have traveled a great distance from their rehabilitative roots to embrace the “tough on crime” stance that prevails today.

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In modern probation and parole, an officer is tasked with (a) protecting community safety by monitoring and enforcing an offender’s compliance with the rules of conditional release from incarceration and, often to a lesser extent, (b) promoting the offender’s rehabilitation with social service referrals such as substance abuse counseling and vocational support. Despite this commonality, probation and parole differ in terms of who is supervised. A probationer is an offender who, on conviction, is typically sentenced directly to a term of community supervision (although a minority of probationers are granted a conditional suspended sentence to incarceration). In contrast, a parolee is convicted of a relatively serious offense, serves a portion of his or her sentence in prison, and is then granted conditional early release to serve the remainder of his or her sentence in the community. Although probation is applied in the federal system and all 50 states, the federal system and at least 15 states have abolished parole in favor of determinant sentencing.

The assumption underpinning both probation and parole is that some offenders can be safely maintained in the community and will respond well to the available services. Community supervision is viewed as a cost-effective alternative to incarceration for these offenders. Probation or parole can be revoked if an offender commits a new offense or a technical violation of the conditions governing release (e.g., reporting to one’s officer, paying restitution, maintaining employment).

Although the type of supervision approach can strongly affect the rate of success (see below), the general success of modern community supervision in preventing crime and facilitating offenders’ reentry into the community is modest. For example, the rates of rearrest over a 2-year period among prisoners released on parole and prisoners released unconditionally are comparable (approximately 60%) once the differences between the two groups in characteristics such as criminal history are controlled. Perhaps given their lower level of risk for re-offense, probationers (59%) are somewhat more likely to successfully complete their term of community supervision than parolees (45%). Nevertheless, many probationers and parolees fail supervision. Among policymakers, such figures have prompted many to issue a call for accountability in community corrections and some to question whether probation and parole should continue to exist in their current form.

Responding to Contemporary Challenges

The business of community corrections is challenging. Management has become results driven. Generally, inadequate budgets have tightened. Workloads have grown astronomically in size and complexity. Many offenders have substance dependence disorders and serious mental disorders, which complicates supervision. Others have been convicted of sex offenses and other violent offenses that demand close oversight. The monumental challenge is to cope with a large, complicated workload while improving the effectiveness of supervision—to do “more with less.”

Given the staggering diversity across states in the organization and oversight of community supervision, there is no well-defined and homogeneous response to this challenge. Probation and parole are practitioner-led enterprises, with supervision philosophies and practices that vary considerably across agencies and officers. Despite this diversity, a few innovative responses have gained enough traction across agencies to be viewed by William Burrell as “strategic trends.” These trends include creating formal partnerships with community agencies (e.g., drug courts, school-based probation) and developing specialized caseloads (e.g., for mentally ill offenders, sex offenders). They are underpinned by a larger drive toward reintroducing rehabilitation in supervision and implementing evidence-based risk assessment, risk management, and supervision strategies.

Promoting Evidence-Based Risk Assessment and Risk Management

Although many agencies have adopted a standardized assessment of offenders’ risk of criminal recidivism over the past decade, relatively few use these assessments to inform supervision. Nevertheless, several progressive agencies have begun using well-validated measures to (a) inform decisions about whether to release an offender to community supervision, (b) identify an offender’s changeable risk factors for recidivism (e.g., substance abuse) to target in intervention, and (c) monitor changes in an offender’s risk state over time. These measures include the Levels of Services/Case Management Inventory (LS/CMI) and the Classification Assessment and Intervention System (CAIS). The accuracy of the LS/CMI in predicting general recidivism and violent recidivism rivals that of tools that are better known in forensic circles (e.g., the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised). Unlike most forensic tools, both the LS/CMI and the CAIS assess both risk status (interindividual risk compared with other offenders) and risk state (intraindividual risk compared with oneself over time) and guide community supervision from intake to case closure. Moreover, use of the CAIS has been shown to improve outcomes for probationers and parolees. For example, in a study of approximately 44,000 offenders assigned to either CAIS-supported supervision or regular supervision, the rate of revocation for CAIS supervisees was 29% lower than that for traditional supervisees.

Reintroducing Rehabilitation Efforts to Improve Outcomes

Increasing empirical support for the “risk-needs-responsivity” (RNR) principle is largely responsible for agencies’ adoption of risk assessment tools and their recognition that rehabilitation should be reintroduced in supervision. Meta-analytic studies show that offenders are considerably (24-54%) less likely to recidivate when programs match the intensity of supervision and treatment services to their level of risk for recidivism (risk principle), match modes of service to their abilities and motivation (responsivity principle), and target their criminogenic needs or changeable risk factors for recidivism (need principle). Indeed, the effectiveness of programs is positively associated with the number of criminogenic needs (e.g., attitudes supportive of crime) they target relative to noncriminogenic needs (i.e., disturbances that impinge on functioning in society, such as anxiety).

Although the surveillance model of supervision still dominates community corrections, empirical support for the RNR principle is helping a hybrid model of supervision gain ascendance in some progressive agencies. There here has long been tension in community corrections between the goals of protecting community safety (“control”) and promoting offender rehabilitation (“care”). The surveillance model focuses exclusively on control, whereas hybrid models blend control and care. A growing body of research demonstrates the effectiveness of hybrid models relative to surveillance models. For example, a recent meta-analysis indicated that RNR programs significantly reduced recidivism risk (r = .25), whereas surveillance programs that applied sanctions without attending to risk or needs did not (r = -.03).

Studies of intensive supervision programs (ISPs) also suggest that rehabilitative efforts should be included in supervision. ISPs were created to reduce prison and jail crowding by having officers with reduced caseloads closely supervise relatively serious offenders in the community with prison-like controls. Traditional ISPs emphasize monitoring virtually to the exclusion of services for offenders. Evaluations of these ISPs robustly indicate that they do not reduce recidivism and sometimes exacerbate (rather than alleviate) prison crowding. For example, in an experiment that involved 14 diverse jurisdictions, offenders were randomly assigned to either traditional supervision or ISP supervision. A meta-analysis of these data indicates that, after excluding the one site in which ISP had a positive effect, ISP increased the likelihood of offenders’ rearrest by 94%. Offenders in ISP were particularly likely to return to prison on technical violations. One might argue that detecting and sanctioning technical violations is an index of the surveillance model’s success in preventing crime. However, there was no evidence that sanctioning technical offenses prevented new arrests.

Unlike traditional ISPs, hybrid ISPs yield positive effects. One meta-analysis indicated that ISPs that incorporated treatment (hybrids) reduced recidivism by 22%, whereas ISPs that did not (surveillance) had no effect on recidivism. Based on a matched sample of 480 parolees, Mario Paparozzi and Paul Gendreau found that those supervised in a hybrid ISP program received significantly more social services (e.g., public assistance) than those in a traditional parole program. Hybrid ISP parolees were substantially less likely to have new convictions (19% vs. 48%) and revocations (38% vs. 59%) than traditional parolees.

There is increasing recognition that the manner in which officers implement supervision has powerful effects. For example, Paparozzi and Gendreau classified 12 ISP officers’ supervisory orientation into surveillance, treatment, and hybrid categories. Within ISP, parolees with hybrid officers (19%) were remarkably less likely to have their probation revoked than those with both surveillance (59%) and treatment (38%) officers. In fact, officers’ orientations toward supervision affected parolees’ outcomes more strongly than the particular supervision program applied (i.e., ISP vs. traditional).

Tailoring Responses to Supervisees with Mental Disorder

The process of supervision may be especially important for probationers and parolees with mental disorders (PMDs). Both PMDs and their officers describe the quality of their relationship as coloring every interaction and strongly affecting outcomes. There is some support for this notion. In a study of 90 PMDs, Jennifer Skeem and colleagues developed and validated the revised Dual Role Relationship Inventory (DRI-R) to capture relationship dimensions such as caring, fairness, and trust. DRI-R scores related coherently to observers’ codes of officer-probationer interactions during a supervision session and significantly predicted violations and revocation over a 1-year follow-up period.

PMDs constitute a large and at-risk population. The prevalence of major mental disorders is 4 to 8 times higher in corrections populations than in the general population. Relative to their nondisordered counterparts, PMDs are twice as likely to fail on probation or parole. PMDs are particularly likely to have supervision revoked for technical violations, perhaps because their reduced level of functioning makes it more difficult for them to comply with standard conditions such as maintaining employment. The vast majority of PMDs have a co-occurring substance abuse disorder, which elevates their risk of rearrest. PMDs present a number of unique challenges to supervising officers, given their pronounced need for social services (e.g., housing, social security income) and the mandate that they take psychotropic medication and participate in psychosocial treatment as a special condition of supervision.

A number of agencies have responded to these challenges by developing specialty caseloads for PMDs. These caseloads are reduced in size (M = 48), composed exclusively of PMDs, and supervised by an officer interested in mental health. In prototypic specialty agencies, officers advocate for services, participate in the treatment team, and tend to address noncompliance with problem-solving approaches rather than threats of incarceration. Specialty caseloads are a promising if not evidence-based practice. To date, only one relevant randomized controlled trial (RCT) has been conducted: A large matched trial is currently under way. In the RCT, PMDs in specialty probation obtained significantly more mental health services than PMDs in traditional probation, but these increased services did not translate into a reduced risk of jail rebookings during a 1-year follow-up. This echoes other studies suggesting that increased mental health services fail to reduce police contacts and rearrests. This could be because (a) the quality of the mental health services received is poor or (b) mental disorder is not the sole, or even primary, reason for PMDs’ involvement in the crime. The latter notion enjoys some support. Based on a sample of 113 jail detainees with mental disorder, John Junginger and colleagues found that less than 4% had been booked for a crime directly related to their mental disorder. Given that PMDs share risk factors for crime with other offenders, hybrid models for PMDs probably will not meaningfully reduce recidivism unless they go beyond providing mental health services to target these individuals’ criminogenic needs.

Looking to the Future

Evidence robustly indicates that supervision is most effective when it blends care with control. Despite increasing endorsement of rehabilitation efforts, there is little evidence that the hybrid model of supervision is being widely implemented. Surveys indicate that the vast majority of correctional treatment programs do not apply RNR and other principles of evidence-based practice. Similarly, less than 5% of probation agencies have developed specialty mental health caseloads for PMDs, and a significant number of these have pushed caseload size beyond the capacity that can conform to the prototypic hybrid model. Relatively few agencies have moved from a surveillance to a hybrid model.

The paths toward better achieving this goal include (a) use of a new generation of risk/needs assessment tools such as the LS/CMI and CAIS to direct supervision from intake through case closure, (b) extension of RNR principles to PMDs, and (c) gradual shifts in organizational values, hiring practices, and officer training to produce a larger pool of officers with hybrid orientations. The most meaningful gains likely will be made at the officer level. These gains will be gradual because a generation of officers has grown up with the law enforcement model, without exposure to rehabilitative principles. In the midst of debates about branded programs, we often lose sight of the fact that officers’ orientation toward supervision and their relationships with probationers influence outcomes more strongly than the specific program they ostensibly apply.


  1. Andrews, D., Bonta, J., & Wormith, S. (2006). The recent past and near future of risk and/or need assessment. Crime and Delinquency, 52(1), 7-27.
  2. Burrell, W. (2005). Trends in probation and parole in the states. Washington, DC: Council of State Governments.
  3. Skeem, J. L., & Manchak, S. (in press). Back to the future: From Klockars’ model of effective supervision to evidence-based practice in probation. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation.

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