What Works in Corrections? A Review of the Evaluation Literature
The operational management of probation and parole is often criticised for the seeming lack of immediate and consistent sanctions in response to detected violations of supervision orders by offenders. It has been suggested that because offenders are generally reckless or impulsive, low-probability threats of severe punishment are a less effective deterrent than immediate and high-probability threats of mild punishment (Hawken & Kleiman, 2009). As such, a number of interventions have explored the efficacy of imposing swift and certain, but low-intensity or modest, sanctions for supervision order violations (DeVall et al., 2017; Hawken & Kleiman, 2009; Howard et al., 2002; Kilmer et al., 2013). In addition, these interventions also often include graduated sanctions, whereby more serious sanctions are imposed on offenders who continually violate their probation or parole conditions. Support for the effectiveness of swift and certain sanctions, and graduated sanctions, with both probationers and parolees is apparent in the literature (DeVall et al., 2017; Hawken & Kleiman; 2009; Howard et al., 2002; Kilmer et al., 2013).
The Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) intervention is a community supervision strategy for drug-involved, high-risk probationers. Incorporating the idea of the importance of certainty and swiftness to achieve a deterrent effect in threatened punishments, this intervention aims to significantly reduce rates of probation non-compliance using credible threats of low-intensity sanctions, as opposed to revocations (Hawken & Kleiman, 2009). The sanctions include regular random drug testing, a guaranteed sanction (typically a few days in jail for the first violation, and escalating punishments for subsequent violations), a clear set of rules, and hearings within 72 hours of the violation. In their evaluation of this intervention, Hawken and Kleiman (2009) found HOPE probationers, compared to standard probationers, had much lower rates of positive drug tests, were much less likely to miss an appointment with their probation officer, had much lower rates of supervision revocation, and were less likely to face a lengthy jail sentence. An evaluation of the San Diego County Probation Department’s Repeat Offender Prevention Program (ROPP), which is aimed at juvenile probationers, also found the use of graduated sanctions and immediate responses to violations to be effective in holding juvenile offenders accountable for their actions (Howard et al., 2002).
More recently, Kilmer et al. (2013) examined the impact of South Dakota’s Sobriety Project, a program that requires individuals arrested for or convicted of alcohol-related offenses to submit to twice daily breathalyser tests or to wear an alcohol monitoring bracelet. Offenders who tested positive for alcohol consumption were subjected to swift and certain, but modest, sanctions. The study also reported favourable intervention results, with a 12% reduction in repeat arrests for driving under the influence and a 9% reduction in domestic violence-related arrests. However, findings relating to subsequent traffic crashes were mixed. In light of those findings, it was concluded, “in community supervision settings, frequent alcohol testing with swift, certain, and modest sanctions for violations can reduce problem drinking and improve public health outcomes” (Kilmer et al., 2013, p. 37).
Positive results for the use of swift and certain sanctions were also reported in a recent quasi-experimental evaluation of the Swift and Sure Sanctions Probation Program (SSSPP) (DeVall et al., 2017). The Michigan-based program was designed to reduce recidivism among high-risk probationers by ensuring swift responses to probation violations. A comparison of SSSPP participants with a group of offenders who received standard probation revealed that SSSPP participants were 36% less likely to reoffend upon program completion (DeVall et al., 2017).
Structured sanctioning approaches
Probation and parole officers are often afforded considerable discretion to decide the appropriate sanction for supervision order violations. Officers may, for instance, take into account the individual offenders’ unique needs or circumstances when determining an appropriate response, or any other factor that they believe is relevant (Steiner et al., 2011 ). As a result, concerns have been raised regarding the potential for the disparate treatment of offenders and for extralegal or inappropriate factors to influence officers’ decisions (Steiner et al., 2011). In response to these concerns, some jurisdictions have introduced administrative violation response policies, which act to restrict a probation or parole officers’ discretion to make sanctioning decisions and to ensure only legally relevant considerations are taken into account. Relevant legal criteria include, for instance, the severity of the violation, the number of previous sanctions imposed, and the level of risk the offender poses to the safety of the community.
The effectiveness of structured sanctioning approaches was explored by Martin (2008), in his evaluation of progressive sanction guidelines that were adopted by the Ohio Adult Parole Authority in 2005. At the heart of those guidelines was a violation response grid which acted as a structured decision-making tool incorporating offender risk, violation severity, and cumulative behaviour to determine the appropriate response to parole violations. Martin’s (2008) evaluation of these guidelines revealed that once the guidelines were implemented there was, among other things, a significantly reduced reliance on revocation hearings and revocation sanctions. Furthermore, the introduction of the guidelines did not increase rates of felony reoffending. Ohio’s structured sanctioning approach was also evaluated by Steiner et al. (2011), who also concluded the guidelines resulted in a reduction in revocation hearings pursued by probation officers, except in more serious cases, like those involving sex offenders.