George Mason University: Interdisciplinary Team Creating Guidelines for Probation Officers as Change Agents

Researchers from the Schar School of Policy and Government’s Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence! and the College of Health and Human Services are translating research into actionable guidelines to help probation officers support their clients to achieve better outcomes.
With probation officers providing services to nearly five million people on community supervision in the United States, they play a critical role in the criminal justice system. Finding proven, effective ways to enhance probation and parole practices is important in keeping people from returning to the correctional system, which will improve lives and reduce costs. Evidenced-based research exists to help probation/parole officers improve their practice; however, the research can be difficult for probation/parole agencies to implement.

University Professor and Director of the Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence (ACE) Faye S. Taxman and Associate Professor in the Department of Social Work JoAnn Lee are collaborating to build on evidence-based research to help make implementing the research easier to digest–after all what good is research if it sits on a shelf?

Taxman considered this question and got to work. Easier to use research would hopefully strengthen the relationship between officers and their clients, improve their clients’ lives and support them to achieve better outcomes, and prevent further involvement in the court system. Together with an interdisciplinary team of graduate students, Taxman and Lee are writing practical guidelines for officers as positive change agents instead of disciplinarians.

Probation/parole can be given as a sentence to people convicted of certain crimes instead of jail time or ordered for a period of time after a person is released from prison. For this project, Taxman, the principal investigator, wanted to partner with Lee, the co-principal investigator, to bring an interdisciplinary approach.

Taxman thought it would be helpful to have a partner who was more grounded in social work principles and had direct service experiences helping others. Taxman knew that having an interdisciplinary team would be the best way to incorporate all angles in the guidelines so they would be as effective as possible.

“Having an interdisciplinary team helps us combine translating the research and clinical practice into actionable items,” said Taxman. “It has improved the project to be able to work with people in many academic fields, as well as people working in various roles within the probation process.”

They are working with experienced probation officers and a team of criminologists, social workers, and psychologists with expertise in substance use treatment, mental health and probation, intimate partner violence, violence, and criminal thinking. Additionally, they have included several criminology and social work students into the project.

“We hope when we disseminate our guidelines to the field, we do it in a way that probation officers and agencies will use them and begin to talk about what do they need to improve their existing practice,” said Taxman, who is professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government. “We’ve taken existing evidence-based research and our own research from the field to create real-world guidelines.”

Creating Easy-to-Use Guidelines

Taxman and Lee began by looking at the existing research and identified where there were gaps that they needed to fill in order to provide complete guidelines. They also surveyed probation officers to get direct input from the field about what practices should be done, under what circumstances, and for whom. Researchers also turned to their interdisciplinary panel of academic experts to help provide missing guidance.

The result will be nearly 20 different actionable statements that are easy for probation/parole agencies and officers to apply in their day-to-day work. The statements include guidelines on how and when each guideline should be used and when it may be harmful. Topics include contacts and monitoring; screening for substance and mental health services and treatment services; electronic monitoring; contacting employers and family members; and fines, fees, and restitution. The project, “Developing Probation Guidelines Using Appropriateness Statements,” is funded by a $500,000 grant from the Arnold Ventures Foundation.

For example, motivational interviewing is a skill that can be used alone or integrated with other approaches that focus on preparing a client for behavior change. Evidence-based research might say “use motivational interviewing for substance misuse,” but it does not tell probation officers how to use that skill or when it is most helpful. Taxman and Lee’s statements explain what motivational interviewing is, when to use it, and tips for how to use it.

“This is different because we’re clear about what are evidence-based practices and what are existing practices directly from those in the community supervision field,” says Lee. “Our statements identify when probation officers’ experiences and research agree about an effective technique. The voice of the audience is more integrated into the presentation and we believe this helps officers understand the ‘why’ behind the technique, which may make them more likely to include it into their practice.”

They have been working on this project for about three years and plan to present the guidelines this summer at the American Probation and Parole Association annual training institute. Throughout the process, the team has published several papers (or are in the process of publishing) including in the Handbook of Issues in Criminal Justice Reform in the United States, Aggression and Violent Behavior, Federal Probation, and The Oxford Handbook of Psychology and Law.

The team is also sponsoring a special issue for Federal Probation about working with specific populations such as substance abusers, individuals with mental illness, individuals involved with intimate partner violence, and individuals that are considered violent or violent-prone.

“When we surveyed the field, there was very little attention to working with special populations,” said Lee. The issue will include practices, written by experts in the field, for working with specific populations such as young or violent offenders, those affected by intimate partner violence, and people with mental health challenges.

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