To be effective, efforts to reduce risk of recidivism for probationers and parolees must be guided by both the risk and the needs principles. Assessment can guide community supervision decision-making along several dimensions, with the goal of managing and reducing risk and making strategic use of limited supervision resources such as officer time and available program slots. Here are six questions you should ask yourself as you plan or seek to improve a structured decision-making tool or process based on risk assessment in community supervision.
Is it clear how the intensity and conditions of supervision should vary by risk and need?
Risk level frequently determines the intensity of community supervision, defined by things such as how frequently probationers and parolees must report to their supervising officer and by what means (e.g., in-person, by phone, or by kiosk). Most supervision agencies structure decisions on supervision level by integrating risk assessments into policy and operations. Figure 3 shows an example from Vermont that assigns intensity of supervision based on three considerations:
- supervision status, such as probation, parole, and various types of furlough statuses for people serving all or part of their sentence to incarceration in community settings
- severity of offense, 2 broad categories comprising “listed” offenses designated as violent/attempted violent acts against persons and “non-listed” offenses not so designated
- risk level, as gauged by the LSI-R risk/needs assessment
South Dakota, as another example, has a clear policy for how risk and needs assessment scores translate to supervision level, as well as for how scores at reassessment translate into changes in supervision level.
Specialized caseloads are set for some groups of parolees and probationers, such as those convicted of a sex offense, and specialized assessments can be used to determine both eligibility (e.g., Is the risk of sexual re-offense high enough that this person should receive specialized supervision?), and level of supervision (e.g., What intensity of specialized supervision should this individual receive?). Whether caseloads are specialized or more general, conditions of supervision should be related as closely as possible to criminogenic risk factors identified through assessment, as they are the drivers or reoffending.
Does the framework support intervention and supervision tailored to risk level?
At a minimum, agencies should adjust levels of supervision based on risk; requiring more intensive supervision requirements for higher-risk individuals is necessary, but not sufficient. Research shows that more intensive supervision, absent risk-reduction interventions, can make outcomes worse, as closer surveillance uncovers more misconduct but programming to facilitate behavior change is absent. An agency should define separate supervision pathways that are appropriate for people with different risk and need profiles. Specifically, there must be:
- Separate intervention and supervision pathways for higher-risk and lower-risk people.
- The supervision pathways for people with a moderate to high risk to reoffend should involve intensive services addressing criminogenic needs, as well as attending to stability in the community, for example, by assisting with obtaining stable housing. Programs for lower-risk people can focus primarily on stabilization needs.
While Figure 3 shows an example of how to devise risk-based supervision plans for individuals directly sentenced to probation, Figure 4 shows an example of how to set up such plans for individuals released from prison.
How do you translate needs assessment information to program assignment?
Reducing parolee and probationer risk requires appropriate matching of treatment to level of criminogenic need. Case plans or supervision plans are a common means of structuring this. Such plans need to:
- Clearly indicate the criminogenic needs identified as most problematic through assessment.
- Guide the supervision officer or case manager to make program referrals and set goals to address these priority criminogenic need factors.
Appropriate program assignment requires not only understanding the criminogenic needs of the person being supervised, but also “treatment matching”—that is, identifying which available programs are designed to address which criminogenic needs. Some assessment tools, such as the LS/CMI, include case planning functionality to support developing case plans that fully address criminogenic needs. Vermont’s Offender Case Plan is an example of a case planning interface that indicates need domains and includes information about addressing each indicated need area during the parole supervision period. Antisocial personality pattern, antisocial cognition (criminal thinking), and antisocial associates are the criminogenic needs with the strongest relation to future offending and should be prioritized when present.
In addition to matching people with the right programs to mitigate their criminogenic needs and thereby reduce their risk to re-offend, there is the question of dosage: How much programming is enough to reduce the risk to reoffend? While the research base on program dosage and recidivism is not yet sufficiently developed to definitively answer this question by risk level, concepts such as “dosage probation” are a helpful guide on how to approach this issue.
Have you examined available program interventions to determine the criminogenic needs they address, as defined in the risk/needs assessment tool?
Case plans support structured decision-making at the individual level by focusing work for parolees and probationers on addressing their criminogenic needs. In addition to that, a recommended practice is to sort or inventory intervention options by need(s) addressed, as defined in the risk/needs assessment tool. This information should be available to supervision officers and case managers. Doing this could involve a thorough examination of existing programs to:
- Determine the evidence base on how effectively they address criminogenic needs.
- Assess whether they are implemented with fidelity. Appropriate program models delivered without fidelity do not produce the intended results.
- Gauge the number of available program slots relative to the identified level and distribution of needs among the supervisee population.
How is risk integrated into responses to supervision violations?
Risk level is an important input into determining how to respond to supervision violations. Tools to structure supervision violation response decision-making generally bring together three elements:
- The individual’s likelihood (risk) to reoffend.
- The severity of the supervision violation.
- The available response options.
A simple violation response matrix that organizes consideration of all three elements is shown in Figure 5. Minor violations committed by lower-risk parolees get the least intensive interventions, which might include a verbal reprimand, imposition of a curfew, or a behavioral contract. More intensive interventions might be referrals to intensive programming or even recommendation for revocation.
Have you established performance measures tied to the structured decision-making framework?
Structured decision-making can facilitate monitoring of several important aspects of system performance:
- Are supervisees assigned to programs appropriate to their risk level and that address their criminogenic needs? Monitoring in this area checks whether practice accords with the risk and needs principles. It’s important to ensure that high and moderate-risk supervisees are in risk-reduction programming, rather than low-risk people. And for those who are in programs, it’s critical that the programming match their established needs.
- Are responses to supervision violations consistent with the response suggested by the sanctions matrix? There will always be some use of overrides of the suggestions of a supervision violation response matrix, reflecting specific circumstances or intelligence that is not sufficiently captured by the risk assessment or the nature of the violation. However, high override rates can indicate that practitioner agreement with the structured decision-making framework is lacking, and either consensus needs to be re-established (or established), or the matrix itself should be adjusted. Overrides may also indicate limitations in intervention capacity—either that preferred responses to violations are not available in some cases, or that decisionmakers do not believe that the quality of interventions available makes them a viable option.
What are the supervisee success/failure rates for each risk-based supervision level? Tracking supervision outcomes by risk-based supervision category allows a jurisdiction to monitor whether the levels of supervision and programming being used are producing acceptable success rates. It is valuable to monitor program success rates by the risk level of supervisees participating, as programs taking on higher-risk participants are trying to improve upon a high baseline for recidivism.