Probation and Parole Supervision Research Paper

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Probation and parole agencies share one particular and significant function: they provide supervision of offenders in the community. After an offender has been granted probation or parole, a probation or parole officer, hereafter referred to as ‘‘PO,’’ is expected to supervise that offender in the community. The basic question remains: What is the purpose of supervision? To some, the function of supervision, drawn from the field of social work, is based upon the casework model. Based on this view, supervision forms the basis of a treatment program. The officer uses all the information available about the offender to make a diagnosis of that person’s needs and designs a treatment plan. The treatment plan is an outline based on the needs of the offender (e.g., employment), and the PO’s strategy for assisting the offenders in meeting their goal (e.g., enroll the offender in a job skills program).

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Yet providing treatment is only one aspect of supervision. In addition, the PO is expected to maintain surveillance of those offenders who make up the case load. A classic definition of surveillance was provided by the National Conference of Parole: ‘‘Surveillance is that activity of the parole officer, which utilizes watchfulness, checking, and verification of certain behavior of a parolee without contributing to a helping relationship with him’’ (Studt, p. 65).

Although these statements indicate that the treatment and surveillance roles of the PO are almost diametrically opposed, many believe that they coexist as a part of probation or parole agency’s mission. Many believe that the PO has two major responsibilities: to rehabilitate the offenders who are amenable to treatment, while simultaneously protecting society from those who prove to be dangerous.

Supervision of offenders usually involves both surveillance of offenders and assistance that will help the offender remain crime free in the community. While the term ‘‘surveillance’’ usually means simply watching in a police sense, it should be pointed out that a helping purpose can also occur. When surveillance is properly carried out, the offender can be continually sensitized to the possible results of a course of action that has made him or her vulnerable to breaking the law in the past. Just as an alcoholic or narcotics addict who is trying to change his or her life derives support from frequent contact with others who have successfully conquered their problems, so also can many offenders derive beneficial results from frequent meetings with the PO.

Social Work or Law Enforcement?

The split between treatment and surveillance has attracted a great deal of attention, but very little in terms of empirical studies. Most authors seem to interpret role conflict as somehow tragic, intractable, and overwhelming. The most common solution has been to advocate that one orientation must be emphasized over all others. Simply put, is the role of the PO that of the helper or the cop?

The roots of role conflict often are attributed to inconsistencies that exist in the three main functions of supervision: to enforce the legal requirements of supervision (the ‘‘law enforcement’’ role), to assist the offender in establishing a successful community adjustment (the ‘‘social worker’’ role), and to carry out the policies of the supervision agency (the ‘‘bureaucrat’’ role). One critic of surveillance was John Conrad, who wrote:

We can hardly justify parole services on the basis of the surveillance model. What the parole officer can do, if it should be done at all, can better be done by the police. The pushing of doorbells, the recording of ‘‘contacts,’’ and the requirement of monthly reports all add up to expensive pseudoservices. At best they constitute a costly but useless frenzy of activity. But more often than not, I suspect, they harass and humiliate the parolee without gaining even the illusion of control. (p. 21)

Certainly probation or parole officers have no monopoly on role conflict. Many feel that the true ‘‘professional’’ finds a way of integrating various role expectations, balancing them, and weighing the appropriateness of various expressions of the roles. It is probable that the treatment-surveillance dichotomy will remain forever. Recent developments suggest that surveillance is likely to become the primary emphasis, especially for offenders who constitute a demonstrable risk to society. Providing assistance to offenders can involve direct services by the PO, such as counseling in areas like employment, education, marital/family relationships, companions, and alcohol and drug usage. Often times POs do not directly provide services, but rather serve a referral function in which they refer offenders to other community resources for help or assistance.

Casework Supervision Versus Brokerage Supervision

In terms of community safety, the most significant responsibility of a probation or parole agency is supervising offenders. Underlying this duty are the dual objectives of protecting the community and helping the offenders. As we have already learned, these objectives are not always compatible.

Depending upon the jurisdiction in which the agency is located, offenders placed on probation or parole may have committed almost any type of criminal offense, and may range from first-time offenders to career criminals. The bulk of probationers and parolees are under regular supervision, although about one in nine are under some other management program, such as intensive supervision, electronic monitoring, house arrest, halfway house, or other programs.

In addition, there is likely to be variation among probationers or parolees with respect to the type and extent of conditions imposed upon them by the court or the parole board. Finally, individuals being supervised will vary considerably in the types of problems they face (family difficulties, educational or employment needs, mental illness, alcohol or drug abuse).

The two major orientations or approaches to supervision are casework and brokerage. We will briefly examine each approach. We are discussing ‘‘pure’’ types as though the approaches were mutually exclusive, as if a probation or parole department would adopt either a casework or a brokerage approach, but could not combine any feature of the two. In reality, the two approaches are so mixed that it would be unusual if any two departments exhibited precisely the same approach as extreme positions. Most departments adopt positions somewhere between the two.

Casework Supervision

The traditional approach to probation and parole supervision has been the casework approach. Many definitions of casework have been offered. Bowers has provided a frequently cited definition: ‘‘[C]asework is an area in which knowledge of the science of human relations and skills in relationships are used to mobilize capacities in the individual and resources in the community appropriate for better adjustment between the client and all or any part of his total environment’’ (p. 127).

It is apparent that the basic element in casework is the nature of the relationship between the caseworker and the individual in trouble. It is also obvious from these definitions that casework emphasizes changing the behavior of the offender through the development of a supportive one-to-one relationship. Because of the closeness, this approach views the caseworker as the sole, or at least the primary, agent of treatment for the client.

Casework is so extensively used in probation and parole supervision that it is considered the ‘‘norm’’ as a service provision strategy. It basically follows the medical model of corrections in which the supervising officer, through a one-toone relationship, diagnoses the offender, formulates a treatment strategy, implements that strategy and, finally, evaluates the offender in light of the treatment.

Following this approach, the probation or parole officer attempts to bring about a mutual interaction with the offender in an effort to promote a psychological and social atmosphere that will enable the offender to be more self-accepting and to interact more acceptably with others. In other words, through the use of this close, helping relationship, the officer attempts to change (positively) the behavior of the offender. Because of the close relationship required by the casework approach, the officer is the primary agent of treatment.

Brokerage Supervision

Almost diametrically opposed to the casework approach is the brokerage approach, in which the supervising officer is not concerned primarily with understanding or changing the behavior of the offender, but rather with assessing the needs of the individual and arranging for the probationer or parolee to receive services that directly address those needs. Since the PO is not seen as the primary agent of treatment or change, there is significantly less emphasis placed on the development of a close, one-onone relationship between the officer and the offender. With the brokerage approach, the supervising officer functions primarily as a manager or broker of resources and social services that are already available from other agencies. It is the task of the PO to assess the service needs of the offender, locate the social service agency that addresses those needs, refer the offender to the appropriate agency, and make follow-up contacts to make sure the offender has actually received the services. Under the brokerage approach, it can be said that the officer’s relationship with community service agencies is more important than the relationship with an individual client. With its emphasis on the management of community resources, the brokerage approach requires intimate knowledge of the services in the community and the conditions under which each service is available.

In addition to understanding the basic philosophical aspects of supervising offenders in the field, it is important to examine some of the alternative approaches and programs that are used by probation and parole agencies.

Intensive supervision

Offenders under correctional control in the community are generally given one of three general forms of supervision: (1) minimum, which requires little if any formal reporting; (2) regular, where the offender reports to a probation officer on a reoccurring basis; and (3) intensive, in which more stringent reporting requirements and other conditions are placed on the offender. An intensive supervision program (ISP) is most often viewed as an alternative to incarceration. Persons who are sentenced to intensive probation supervision are supposed to be those offenders who, in the absence of intensive supervision, would have been sentenced to imprisonment. Intensive supervision programs emphasize punishment of the offender and control of the offender in the community at least as much as they do rehabilitation. Further, contemporary programs are designed to meet the primary goal of easing the burden of prison overcrowding. No two jurisdictions define intensive supervision in exactly the same way. However, one characteristic of all ISP programs is that they provide for very strict terms of probation. This increased level of control is usually achieved through reduced case loads, increased number of contacts, and a range of required activities for participating offenders that can include victim restitution, community service, employment, random urine and alcohol testing, electronic monitoring, and payment of a probation supervision fee. Intensive supervision programs vary in terms of the number and type of contacts per month, case load size, type of surveillance conducted, and services offered.

In an article summarizing the state of ISP, Fulton and others (p. 72) summarize what we know from the research concerning intensive supervision programs:

  • ISPs have failed to alleviate prison crowding.
  • Most ISP studies have found no significant differences between recidivism rates of ISP offenders and offenders with comparison groups.
  • There appears to be a relationship between greater participation in treatment and employment programs and lower recidivism rates.
  • ISPs appear to be more effective than regular supervision or prison in meeting offenders’ needs.
  • ISPs that reflect certain principles of effective intervention are associated with lower rates of recidivism.
  • ISP does provide an intermediate punishment.

Shock Probation

Shock probation is a program that allows sentencing judges to reconsider the offender’s original sentence to prison and then recall the inmate for a sentence to probation within the community. It is presumed that a short term or imprisonment would ‘‘shock’’ the offender into changing their criminal behavior. With shock probation, an offender is sent to prison, and then within a specified period of time (usually between 30 and 120 days), a judge can bring that offender back out for community supervision.

The overall effects of shock probation remain unknown. Until more research is conducted, perhaps the best tentative conclusions is that it can reduce the cost of incarceration, and may be just as effective in preventing recidivism as prison.

Day Reporting Centers

Unlike many other supervision practices, day reporting is of recent vintage. While day reporting was used earlier in England, the first dayreporting program in the United States was opened in Massachusetts in 1986 (McDevitt). This inaugural program was designed as an early release from prison and jail placement for inmates approaching their parole or discharge date. Unlike traditional halfway houses, day reporting centers do not require the offender to reside in the program. Participants in day reporting programs are generally required to report to the center each day (hence the name), prepare an itinerary for their next day’s activities, and report by telephone to the center throughout the day. The characteristics of these programs and the clients they serve vary considerably; however, most day reporting programs generally offer a variety of services to program participants. Most centers offer job skills, drug abuse education, group and individual counseling, job placement, education, life skills training, and drug treatment. Unfortunately, there have not been many empirical studies of day reporting centers, so their effectiveness remains an open question.

Home Detention

House arrest, usually conjuring up images of political control and fascist repression, is courtordered home detention in the United States, confining offenders to their households for the duration of the sentence. The sentence is usually in conjunction with probation, but may be imposed by the court as a separate punishment. Participants may be required to make victim compensation, perform community work service, pay probation fees, undergo drug and alcohol testing and, in some instances, wear electronic monitoring equipment to verify their presence in the residence. House arrest only allows the offender to leave her or his residence for specific purposes and hours approved by the court or supervising officer, and being absent without leave is a technical violation of conditions that may result in resentencing to jail or prison.

Home detention is a sentence that was designed in most cases to relieve institutional overcrowding. For many offenders it is their ‘‘last chance’’ to avoid being committed to jail or prison. The most significant critical argument against home detention is that many petty or low-risk offenders are brought under correctional control that would best be handled by diversion, fines, or other services or supervision. In general, such inclusive actions are viewed as ‘‘net widening,’’ which occurs when offenders are sentenced to community control that might otherwise have received a lesser or even no sentence.

Electronic Monitoring

Home detention has a long history as a criminal penalty but its new popularity with correctional authorities is due to the advent of electronic monitoring, a technological link thought to make the sanction both practical and affordable. The concept of electronic monitoring is not new, having been proposed in 1964 by Schwitzgebel and his colleagues as ‘‘electronic parole,’’ and initially used to monitor the location of mental patients. The first studies of home detention enforced by electronic monitoring began in 1986, and by early 1992 there were at least forty thousand electronic monitors in use (Gowdy).

Electronic monitoring can be active or passive. In active monitoring, a transmitter attached to the offender’s wrist or ankle sends signals relayed by a home telephone to the supervising office during the hours the offender is required to be at home. Under passive monitoring, a computer program is used to call the offender randomly during the hours designated for home confinement. The offender inserts the wristlet or anklet into a verifier to confirm her or his presence in the residence. There does not appear to be any difference in recidivism between those on passive or active systems. National surveys indicate that electronic monitoring was initially used for property offenders on probation, but since the 1900s a much broader range of offenders were being monitored than in the past. Monitoring has been expanded to include not only probationers but also to follow up persons after incarceration, to control those sentenced to community corrections, and to monitor persons before trial or sentencing. Recent evaluations in a number of jurisdictions indicate continuing support for electronic monitoring of correctional offenders; however, in terms of changing offender behavior, there is little evidence that electronic monitor without treatment and services, has much effect.

Community Residential Centers

Formerly known as ‘‘halfway houses,’’ community residential centers (CRCs) are a valuable adjunct to community control and treatment services. Originally designed as residences for homeless men, they are now seen as a key nucleus of community-based correctional networks of residential centers, drug-free and alcohol-free living space, pre-release guidance centers, and private sector involvement with offenders who have multiple programs and who are in need of intensive services. They also serve as residence facilities for a number of different classes of offenders, most of whom are high-need individuals and pose medium to high risk to reoffend. CRCs are generally intended as an alternative to confinement for persons not suited for probation or for those who need a period of readjustment to the community after imprisonment. Some CRCs specialize by client or treatment modality: women only, abused women, drug-dependent, alcohol abusers, mentally ill, court diagnostic program, developmentally disabled, and so on.

As the foregoing discussion illustrates, it is not possible to describe the average residential facility. Diversity in population, program, size, and structure is the rule. It is, unfortunately, also not possible to know for certain how many such facilities are in operation today, or the number of offenders served by them.

Despite the long tradition of residential community correctional programs, the research literature is both sparse and inconclusive. Most research indicates that offenders in CRCs display greater needs than do regular probation or parole groups. Many of these needs, such as psychiatric and drug/alcohol counseling, are related both to positive adjustment and to new criminal convictions. Offenders in residential facilities are also more likely to receive a variety of treatment and counseling services. It can also be argued that CRCs are more humane that prisons and can serve to lessen the deprivations of incarceration. It appears that residential community correctional facilities will continue to grow and develop new programs. In large part this will be a response to the crowding of local and state correctional institutions.


A court-ordered condition of probation known as restitution requires the offender to repair the financial, emotional, or physical damage done (a reparative sentence) by making financial payment of money to the victim or, alternatively, to a fund that provides services to victims. Restitution programs may also be ordered in the absence of a sentence to probation. Restitution is usually a cash payment by the offender to the victim of an amount considered to offset the loss incurred by the victim (medical expenses, insurance deductibles, time lost from work due to victim’s injuries, etc.). Payments may be made in installments in most jurisdictions, and sometimes services directly or indirectly benefiting the victim may be substituted for cash payments. There is some evidence that restitution programs can serve a ‘‘restorative’’ purpose for victims and thereby reduce recidivism for offenders.

Use of Volunteers

Community correctional programs operate under a basic philosophy of reintegration: connecting offenders with legitimate opportunity and reward structures, and generally uniting the offender within the community. It has become quite apparent that the correctional system cannot achieve this without assistance, regardless of the extent of resources available. Reintegration requires the assistance and support of the community. This concept is certainly not a new one. The John Howard Association, the Osborne Association, and other citizen prisoners’ aid societies have provided voluntary correctional-type services for many years. The volunteer movement developed in this country in the early 1820s, when a group of citizens known as the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Misery of Public Prisons began supervising the activities of inmates upon their release from penal institutions. John Augustus, a Boston shoemaker, who worked with well over two thousand misdemeanants in his lifetime, later adopted this practice.

Volunteerism is alive and well in corrections. Although exact numbers are not known, it is safe to say that there are thousands of volunteers serving more than three thousand jurisdictions nationwide. Proponents of the volunteer concept consider it to be one of the most promising innovations in the field, claiming that it can help alleviate the problem of excessive probation and parole case loads, and contribute to rehabilita-

tion and reintegration goals for the offender. Volunteers can range from student interns to older persons with time to devote. Some volunteers are persons that have a specific skill or talent to contribute, while others give their time and counsel.

Volunteerism generally refers to situations where individual citizens contribute their talents, wisdom, skills, time, and resources within the context of the justice system, without receiving financial remuneration. Volunteer projects operate on the premise that certain types of offenders can be helped by the services a volunteer can offer, and that such services can be provided at a minimal tax dollar cost and can result in significant cost savings. By drawing upon the time, talents, and abilities of volunteers to assist in service delivery, community supervision officers can serve to broaden the nature of the services offered. Any community consists of persons who possess a diverse supply of skills and abilities that can be effectively tapped by volunteer programs.

Effectiveness of Community Supervision

Despite the widespread use of probation, parole, and other community sanctions there remains debate over the effectiveness of many of these practices. The empirical evidence indicates that some correctional sanctions, such as intensive supervision, electronic monitoring, shock probation, and other control-oriented practices do not reduce recidivism. These sanctions may accomplish other goals, such as reducing prison crowding, but recidivism is usually the most important criteria by which community correctional programs are measured. Other options, such as halfway houses and day reporting centers can be effective in changing offender behavior, provided they deliver high-quality treatment programs and services.


  1. BOWERS, SWITHUM. ‘‘The Nature and Definition of Social Casework.’’ In Principles and Techniques in Social Casework. Edited by Cora Kasius. New York: Family Services Association of America, 1950. Pages 126–139.
  2. CONRAD, JOHN. ‘‘Who Needs a Door Bell Pusher?’’ The Prison Journal 59 (1979):17–26.
  3. FULTON, BETSY; LATESSA, EDWARD; STICHMAN, AMY; and TRAVIS, LAWRENCE F. ‘‘The State of ISP: Research and Policy Implications.’’ Federal Probation 61, no. 4 (1997): 65–75.
  4. GOWDY, VONCILE. Intermediate Sanctions. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 1993.
  5. MCDEVITT, JACK. Evaluation of the Hampton County Day Reporting Center. Boston: Crime and Justice Foundation, 1988.
  6. SCHWITZGEBEL, RALPH, K.; SCHWITZGEBEL, ROBERT. L.; PAHNKE, WALTER, N.; and HURD, WILLIAM ‘‘A Program of Research in Behavioral Electronics.’’ Behavioral Scientist 2 (1964): 233– 238.
  7. STUDT, ELLIOTT. Surveillance and Service in Parole. U.S. Department of Justice: National Institute of Corrections, 1978.
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