Jessica Saunders and Gregory Midgette
Justice Innovation Center
Probation Monitoring Challenges
Nearly 4 million people are supervised under probation each year in the United States. Despite at least 1 in 64 adults being on probation each year for the last decade, cuts to state and federal budgets aimed at probation services have forced departments to find creative solutions to effectively monitor their growing caseloads.
Community corrections monitoring is made difficult due to a lack of information about the particular risks and needs for each monitored individual. Traditional practice focused on periodic in-person or telephonic interviews and sanctions when violations are detected. Limited budgets have led to small staffs with large caseloads. Officers attempt to prioritize cases based on the information available. Validated risk assessments aid in this task, but the basic problem of monitoring remains—a large fraction of the time devoted to each client is spent commuting to clients, collecting pro forma information, and documenting that information. These compulsory tasks reduce the time available for individual-specific consultation. In rural areas, where commutes are longer and time-saving technology is less common, the problem is amplified.
Technology and Operations Solution: North Carolina’s Online Offender Accountability Program for Low Risk Probationers
In order to identify low risk probationers, NC created an Offender Traits Inventory-Revised (OTI-R)—a validated risk assessment tool based on the Wisconsin Risk Instrument—used to assess each new probationer. On a scale of 0 to 100, a probationers’ OTI risk score defines the level of probation oversight he or she will be placed on. Levels range from 1 to 5; Level 1 participants are very high risk, with a 57% one-year recidivism rate. The lowest-risk probationers—those assigned to Level 5—have recidivism rates that are less than 10%.
In 2011, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety implemented a web-based probation monitoring tool—the Offender Accountability Reporting program (OAR)—for low-risk offenders to more efficiently use their limited resources. The web-based system was aimed at simultaneously reducing probation officer caseloads and increasing the amount of information collected from the low-risk probation population. Anyone defined as Level 4 and 5 can be enrolled in the monthly OAR and reduce their office visits to once every three months after an investigation and case review by the probation officer and supervisor. Those enrolled in OAR go online to the website (or mail a paper form) to report basic information about their work and residency status, school attendance, and progress and compliance with the terms of their probation monthly, which officers verify. Probationers also answer questions on any interactions with police and can volunteer any information they feel to be relevant to their probation. Respondents can also ask their case officer questions and officers can send messages to probationers through OAR.
Officers report approximately 90% of their probationers prefer to complete the online form each month and only 10% mail in a paper copy or dictate their responses to their case officer. According to NC probation department representatives, roughly 60-70% of assessments are completed on time each month, though several officers attest that reminder phone calls or text messages increase the response rate significantly and offer an opportunity for a quick informal conversation. Probation officers and supervisors have the discretion to deny OAR for level 4 or 5 probationers if they believe they need more supervision and may increase contact at any time if they believe it necessary for any reason.
Preliminary evidence of OAR’s effect
To date, no rigorous analysis of the effectiveness of North Carolina’s OAR program has been completed, but the program has been well-received by staff. Officers assigned to level 4 and 5 cases carry caseloads roughly 60-100% larger than those supervising higher-risk probationers (the probationer to officer ratio is 60:1 for Levels 1 through 3 and up to 100-120:1 for Levels 4 and 5). Each month, the state’s data management program alerts officers to new information for any probationers in their caseload. There is no guarantee that the information provided is accurate, but the simple requirement of reporting in itself is probably the most valuable—especially where the status quo practice was no monitoring at all in favor of higher-risk cases.
North Carolina’s OAR program focuses on low-risk offenders who may otherwise not be monitored. It also reduces the time and travel burden for officers and participants, providing monitoring that is more commensurate with risk than traditional approaches. Ultimately, the program’s effectiveness may be largely determined by the way it is implemented by officers and their chiefs—particularly how frequently officers are willing to assign a client to OAR. While we have little information about its efficacy at this point, it deserves further study.
For more information visit http://ox.dps.prod.nc.gov/Adult-Corrections/Community-Corrections