From the Field with Ken Tomlinson

Anyone who has worked in the criminal justice field for any length of time has undoubtedly heard the phrase evidence based practices.  But what does that really mean and how is it applied in the day to day management of those under community supervision.  According to the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) “The terms best practices, what works, and evidence-based practices (EBP) are often used interchangeably.”

However, what separates evidence based practices from the others is that it “implies that 1) one outcome is desired over others; 2) it is measurable; and 3) it is defined according to practical realities (i.e. public safety) rather than immeasurable moral or value-oriented standards.  Thus…EBP is more appropriate for scientific exploration within the human service disciplines.”  This means the activities we engage in with our populations must have some scientific foundation in producing a desired result.

Most of us would agree that the primary goal of community supervision is to reduce future criminal behavior.  Persons under our various supervision programs are there for a variety of reasons and come from a myriad of different backgrounds.  If, as stated above, our goal is to prevent recidivism we must apply some process to ascertain the likelihood of future criminal actions.  This then is the foundation for implementing evidence based practices.  As the NIC notes in their brief Implementing Evidence-Based Practices in Community Corrections:

The Principles of Effective Intervention, “complete system of on-going offender risk screening/triage and needs assessments” is crucial.  Our clients “must be assessed for risk before they are assessed for need.”  It is through this process that agencies can determine which group to focus resources on and “avoid the pitfalls of expending large amount of resources on low risk offenders.” Since EBP programs are based on scientific study that can be replicated, it stands to reason there are valid studies which support the above statements.

One such study of low risk offenders by Ahlman, Kurtz and Malvestuto in Philadelphia in 2010 compared re-arrest rates of 1,559 low risk probationers and/or parolees (defined as having a low risk of committing a new crime) placed in a traditional reporting program verses those placed in a low intensity caseload.  This was a randomized study meaning persons meeting the criteria of low risk were randomly assigned by a computer algorithm to either group (to eliminate possible evaluator bias). The standard reporting caseloads has a ratio of 150 cases per officer while the low intensity caseloads had a ratio of 400 cases per officer.  The standard reporting caseloads had office appointments each month as well as mandatory drug testing.  The low intensity caseloads had office contacts once every 6 months and drug testing only if ordered by the court.

The study measured two primary outcomes; absconder warrants and new arrests.   The results of the study showed there were no statistical differences in the re-arrest rates between the two groups.  For those who were arrested the time to arrest was also not different.  One curious finding however was that the standard reporting group had a 50% absconder rate than the low intensity group.  One of the most significant results of the study not related to arrest was the resource savings.  According to the study authors “reduced supervision of low risk offenders poses no significant threat to public safety.”   The results of this study support the policy of assessment based supervision and that reducing resources for low risk clients does not have an impact on recidivism.  Although not a scientific study, Fieldware clients using our Automated Telephone Reporting (ATR) program anecdotally report similar experiences with their low risk populations.  Ultimately, the more we rely on the science community to assist us in identifying good supervision strategies the more success we will have in our communities.

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