Report  |  Probation

Learning about probation from client perspectives: Feedback from probationers served by Adult Redeploy Illinois-funded program models

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Satisfaction with the criminal justice system often reflects the opinions of the public, rather than that of the offender.1 Research in the medical and behavioral sciences indicate, however, that client satisfaction is associated with compliance and treatment outcomes.2 Beyond the increased adherence that is expected when probation clients are engaged in services they consider worthwhile, satisfaction data offers providers valuable insight into the specific needs of their target population, while potentially increasing perceptions of procedural justice. When clients are unable to provide feedback in a meaningful way, they are further marginalized and alienated from a process that hinges on a change in their behavior and attitudes.

Since 2010, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority has administered the state’s Adult Redeploy Illinois (ARI) program, offering grant funding to jurisdictions to implement local evidence-based programs that reduce the number of non-violent offenders sentenced to prison. In this study, researchers interviewed program clients for insight into program implementation and operations that could strengthen program outcomes.

One hundred eight ARI clients were interviewed who were enrolled in 10 prison diversion programs using three program models—drug courts, intensive supervision probation with services (ISP-S), and Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE). Drug courts refer clients to court-supervised substance abuse treatment in lieu of incarceration, and staff work in interdisciplinary teams compromised of probation officers, substance abuse treatment providers, prosecutors, law enforcement, defense attorneys, and judges to manage the cases.3 ISP-S features specially trained probation officers who use risk/needs assessment tools to provide individualized case management, heightened supervision, and responsive referrals to social services. 4 The HOPE model focuses on behavior modification through swift, certain, and fair sanctions, and offers drug treatment to those in need.5 Data were collected after 18 months of pilot program implementation ending in mid- to late-2012.

The following are key findings from the probationer interviews, during which researchers asked questions about demographics, program staff, program operations, and services.

Conditions of probation

Most interviewees thought the conditions of their probation were very clear (81 percent). Almost all clients (97 percent) were drug tested. Most were required to pay court costs (75 percent) and attend drug treatment (69 percent).

Of 64 probationers who received a sanction for noncompliance, 89 percent (n=51) said it was very likely that they would be caught if they violated probation conditions, 75 percent (n=48) said the sanctions were fair, and 72 percent (n=46) said they were immediate. Sanctions and incentives that are swift, certain, and fair are crucial to all three models of supervision.

Seventy-eight percent of interviewed clients said they had developed a case plan with clear goals with their probation officers. Clearly outlined case plans have been shown to reduce recidivism in evidence-based practice.6 This study revealed a statistical relationship between having a case plan and offering positive feedback on the program.

On average, each client needed assistance in obtaining four different types of services (out of 22 listed); the most common were transportation, employment, or housing. Clients reported that, of the 490 total service requests, 329 (67 percent) were fulfilled by their probation officer.

Compliance and incentives

Sixty-six percent of respondents reported violating the conditions of their supervision (n=72); however, only 60 (83 percent) of those respondents were sanctioned. Those violations included 57 failed drug/alcohol tests, 12 arrests for new crimes, and 14 missed appointments. Four clients reported having three or more violations, 18 had two violations, but the majority (n=49; 69 percent) of those who broke the terms of their probation agreements did so only once. A total of 25 clients (23 percent) indicated they had been arrested either for new crimes or as sanctions for violations while on probation.

Forty-eight (75 percent) of 64 probationers who received a sanction for noncompliance said the sanctions were fair and 46 (72 percent) said they were immediate. Seventy-five percent (n=81) of interviewees said they received rewards for program compliance, such as gift cards, certificates, praise from staff, and food. Of those, 88 percent (n=71) said these rewards were good program motivators.

Client assessments

Overall, clients agreed with positive statements about probation—that the program helped them, it positively impacted their future, and it made them better off than other court sanctions. A majority of clients thought probation was a better alternative to prison (100 percent), offered a better lifestyle than prison (99 percent), and was easier to complete than a prison term (66 percent). Overall, clients agreed with positive statements about their probation officers and disagreed that their officers expected too much of them.

Average client agreement about probation by program model (N=108)

Program Model Helped to appear in court Helped to report to probation officer Helped to attend treatment Positively impacted future Made better off than other court sanctions Personally helped you
ISP-S NA 4.53 4.68 4.49 4.56 4.60
Drug court 4.66 4.75 4.71 4.77 4.71 4.65
HOPE 4.61 4.56 4.33 4.59 4.22 4.22
Overall 4.64 4.63 4.63 4.63 4.57 4.56
Note: 1=strongly disagree, 5=strongly agree

Implications for policy and practice

Further address client service needs

Many probationers sampled reported needing, but not receiving: housing, identification, healthcare services, public assistance, and job support. In order to address this, probation officers should be operating under reduced caseloads and be trained in evidence-based practices (for example, actuarial risk assessment and cognitive behavioral techniques) provide necessary services and reduce recidivism most effectively.7

Probation officers should advocate for clients with local housing assistance agencies and assist them with obtaining subsidized or low-income housing.8 Clients must have proper identification to secure housing and half of the clients sampled requested assistance in obtaining a state ID or driver’s license, birth certificate, and social security card. Probation officers should be prepared to help guide clients through the process of obtaining these documents as they are necessary to meet other needs.

Thirty-eight percent of clients reported chronic medical conditions, but 59 percent of these respondents did not have health insurance. Access to healthcare and preventive health services saves lives and money.9 Probation officers can screen clients for Medicaid eligibility and help them apply and enroll.

Research has found that public assistance alleviates financial stress, which otherwise may lead to criminal behavior.10 Probation officers can assist clients in navigating complex public assistance regulations.

Collateral legal consequences affecting clients can interfere with probation officers’ efforts to meet their needs. Probationers can be barred from public housing, educational grants, and employment because of their convictions. Without social supports, offenders are more likely to recidivate.11

While there should be a balance within probation providing surveillance and social supports, jurisdictional commitments to hiring more probation officers, providing more officer training, and advocating for the removal of barriers to services are system-level changes that will address service provision problems for the long term.

Increase client accountability

Of 72 probationers who reported violating supervision conditions, 60 respondents (83 percent) received subsequent sanctions. While sanctions and surveillance alone may not be effective at reducing recidivism,12 their presence enforces offender accountability.13 Prison diversion programs must focus on swift, certain, and fair responses to non-compliant actions while using positive reinforcement and incentives to modify behavior.14

Develop clear case plans

Probationers with clear case plans were significantly more likely to understand their conditions, probation’s phase system and levels of supervision, and more likely to receive incentives. They also rated their probation officers higher in areas of respectfulness and fairness. All model probation programs are advised to develop comprehensive case plans to appropriately assess risk levels, provide individualized support to overcome criminogenic needs, and use evidence-based practices to rehabilitate probationers.15 It is also important that probationers fully understand these plans. In addition, probation officers demonstrating use of their “dual role”—surveillance with case management—increases the likelihood for offender success.16 Comprehension of goals and heightened perceptions of probation officer legitimacy are research-supported goals for effective probation.17


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  2. Barbosa, C. D., Balp, M., Kulich, K., Germain, N., & Rofail, D. (2012). A literature review to explore the link between treatment satisfaction and adherence, compliance, and persistence. Patient Preference and Adherence, 6, 39.: Levenson, J. S., Prescott, D. S., & D’Amora, D. A. (2010). Sex offender treatment: Consumer satisfaction and engagement in therapy. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 54(3), 307-326.: Zhang, Z., Gerstein, D. R., & Friedmann, P. D. (2008). Patient satisfaction and sustained outcomes of drug abuse treatment. Journal of Health Psychology, 13(3), 388-400.
  3. Carey, S. M., Mackin, J. R., & Finigan, M. W. (2012) .What works? The ten key components of drug court: Research-based best practices. Drug Court Review, 8(1), 6-41.
  4. Andrews, D. A., & Bonta, J. (2010). The psychology of criminal conduct (5th ed.). Newark, NJ: LexisNexis.
  5. Hawken, A., & Kleiman, M. (2009). Managing drug involved probationers with swift and certain sanctions: Evaluating Hawaii’s HOPE. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice. Retrieved from: http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/229023.pdf
  6. Carey, M. (2010). Effective case management: One in a series of coaching packets designed to assist jurisdictions in the implementation of effective practices that will support successful offender outcomes. Silver Spring, MD: Center for Effective Public Policy.
  7. Jalbert, S. K., Rhodes, W., Flygare, C., & Kane, M. (2010). Testing probation outcomes in an evidence-based practice setting: Reduced caseload size and intensive supervision effectiveness. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 49(4), 233-253.
  8. Family Justice. (2009). Enhancing rural reentry through housing partnerships: A handbook for community corrections agencies in rural areas. New York, NY: Author.
  9. Currie, D. (2010). Prevention saves lives as well as money, new research confirms. National Health, 40(9).
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  11. Mock, L. (in press). The impact of employment restriction laws on Illinois’ ex-felons. Chicago, IL: Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.
  12. Taxman, F. S. (2002). Supervision: Exploring the dimensions of effectiveness. Federal Probation, 66(2), 14-28.
  13. National Institute of Corrections. (2004). Implementing evidence-based practice in community corrections: The principles of effective intervention. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://nicic.gov/theprinciplesofeffectiveinterventions.
  14. U.S. Department of Justice. (2015). Swift, certain, and fair sanctions program (SCF): Replicating the concepts behind Project HOPE FY 2015 competitive grant announcement. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from https://www.bja.gov/Funding/15Swift&CertainSol.pdf.
  15. National Institute of Corrections. (2004). Implementing evidence-based practice in community corrections: The principles of effective intervention. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://nicic.gov/theprinciplesofeffectiveinterventions.
  16. Skeem, J. L., Eno Louden, J., Polaschek, D., & Camp, J. (2007). Assesing relationship quality in mandated community treatment: Blending care with control. Psychological Assessment, 19(4), 397-410.: Trotter, C. (2006). Working with involuntary clients: A guide to practice (2nd Ed.). New York, NY: Sage Publications, Inc.
  17. Crime and Justice Institute at Community Resources for Justice (2009). Implementing evidence-based policy and practice in community corrections, 2nd ed. Washington, DC: National Institute of Corrections.

Caitlin DeLong

Caitlin DeLong is an Authority research consultant whose work focuses on public health disparities, correctional best practices, and program evaluation. She received her bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s degree in criminology (with a concentration in violence prevention) from the University of Illinois Chicago.

Jessica Reichert

Jessica Reichert manages ICJIA’s Center for Justice Research and Evaluation. Her research focus includes violence prevention, corrections and reentry, women inmates, and human trafficking. Her work received the Justice Research and Statistics Association’s Phillip Hoke award in 2011 for outstanding effort in applying empirical analysis to criminal justice policymaking. She has conducted numerous national and state presentations on criminal and juvenile justice issues. Prior to joining ICJIA, Jessica worked at the Office of the Illinois Attorney General and in 2005 received the Distinguished Service Award for her work on behalf of citizens of Illinois. She earned her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Bradley University and master’s degree in criminal justice from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Jessica is also a part-time Adjunct Instructor at Loyola University Chicago.

Learning About Probation from Client Perspectives