Research Summary: Transforming Community Supervision through Evidence-Based Practice
Research suggests that Risk-Need-Responsivity-based training models of community supervision are associated with positive changes in probation officer behaviour and reductions in client recidivism.
In recent years, there has been added attention to training probation and parole officers (POs) in applying evidence-based supervision practices. The premier paradigm of offender rehabilitation is the risk-need-responsivity (RNR) model. The risk principle involves matching the level of service to the offender's level of risk. The need principle states that the goal of treatment should be to address the criminogenic needs of the individual (e.g., procriminal attitudes). The responsivity principle maintains that addressing criminogenic needs is most effective when the intervention is cognitive-behavioural in style and attentive to the individual's personality, motivation, and other personal characteristics.
Evidence suggests that adherence to RNR-principles during face-to-face supervision is less than adequate (Bonta et al., 2008). Therefore, to enhance officer adherence to RNR, the Strategic Training Initiative in Community Supervision (STICS) training model was developed by Public Safety Canada researchers. Several other STICS-influenced community supervision training models later followed, including Effective Practices in Community Supervision (EPICS), Staff Training Aimed at Reducing Re-arrest (STARR), and Skills for Effective Engagement, Development, and Supervision (SEEDS).
The purpose of this review was to summarize the current state of knowledge on the use and effectiveness of RNR-based community supervision training models (i.e., STICS and other STICS-influenced models). The following key questions were addressed in this review: (a) Are RNR-based community supervision training models associated with better adherence to RNR principles during face-to-face supervision? (b) Is better adherence to RNR principles during face-to-face supervision associated with reductions in recidivism? and (c) How can this research inform future developments in improving community supervision?
There are two components to the STICS model: a training component and an ongoing professional development component. The training is run over three days, and it is designed to target medium and high risk offenders (risk principle). Following the need principle, POs are trained to identify the procriminal attitudes and other problematic thoughts of their clients. Finally, cognitive-behavioural intervention techniques are taught to assist clients to see that their thinking leads to behaviour, and procriminal thoughts need to be replaced with prosocial thoughts if they are to act more prosocially (responsivity principle). Additionally, three types of clinical supports are provided to POs for ongoing skill development and maintenance. First, a one or two day refresher course is offered on an annual basis. Second, a PO is selected from each office, given additional training, and assigned the role of a coach who guides structured monthly meetings with staff. Finally, POs are expected to submit two audio recordings of supervision sessions once a year for expert feedback.
There have been four Canadian evaluations of STICS: three demonstration projects and one system-wide implementation and evaluation in British Columbia (BC). All four evaluations used audio recordings of face-to-face supervision sessions to evaluate the impact of STICS training on the content of discussions (e.g., criminogenic needs) and intervention skills (e.g., cognitive-behavioural techniques). An improvement in targeting procriminal attitudes following STICS training was consistently found in all four studies. This is important because, if there is one thing that STICS training emphasizes, it is the need to address procriminal attitudes. Additionally, all four studies found improvement following training in the application of cognitive intervention techniques.
Two of the four evaluations, including the system-wide evaluation of STICS in BC, found that clients supervised by STICS-trained POs showed significantly lower 2-year reconviction rates compared to the clients supervised by control POs. Both these evaluations also found that the use of cognitive intervention techniques was particularly important in reducing recidivism. In contrast, the evaluation of a STICS demonstration project in Edmonton showed no significant difference between the experimental and control clients and the sample in the fourth evaluation was too small to examine recidivism.
EPICS was developed at the University of Cincinnati. Similar to STICS, three days of training is provided to POs to improve their targeting of criminogenic needs of medium to high-risk clients using cognitive-behavioural interventions. Unlike STICS, monthly coaching is delivered by university staff rather than POs, and there is no annual refresher course or expert feedback on supervision sessions.
Evaluations of EPICS also used audio recordings to assess changes in PO behaviour. An initial evaluation of EPICS found that training was associated with a greater likelihood of targeting criminogenic needs, spending more time on addressing these needs, and challenging procriminal thoughts. A second evaluation only examined changes in intervention skills and revealed improvements in many skills (cognitive restructuring, prosocial modeling, problem solving, effective disapproval, and structured learning). A follow-up to the second evaluation found no significant difference in client recidivism between EPICS-trained and control POs.
STARR was developed by the US Federal Probation Service and follows many of the same modules and exercises found in STICS. However, the emphasis is more on learning skills and less on targeting procriminal attitudes and other criminogenic needs. There have been two published evaluations of STARR, both on the same sample. In the first study, an analysis of audio recorded supervision sessions indicated that trained POs were more likely to demonstrate cognitive-behavioural skills than the control POs (discussion of criminogenic needs was not examined). Additionally, the one-year recidivism rate for clients of the trained officers was significantly lower for clients of the control officers. A follow-up study on the two-year recidivism rate suggested that the experimental clients maintained their gains, but the difference between groups was not statistically significant.
SEEDS was developed in England and Wales and has some clear similarities to STICS, such as session structure and exercises. Intervention skills that are taught include problem-solving, prosocial modelling, and the “challenging” function in Motivational Interviewing. Three sites of SEEDS-trained POs were compared to two sites where supervision was conducted in the usual manner. Compliance outcomes were gathered over a one-year period. Adjustments were made on risk scores and other factors to control for differences between the two client groups (e.g., clients from the SEEDS group had higher risk violence scores and were more likely to have committed a domestic violence offense). The evaluation found that the odds of a successful outcome were 1.6 times higher for the SEEDS clients. It was 1.8 times higher when a new offense was the reason for the noncompliance. No reconviction study of the impact of SEEDS has been conducted.
Conclusions and Recommendations
In conclusion, RNR-based community supervision is associated with positive changes in supervision practices and reductions in recidivism. For agencies considering the implementation of a RNR-based community supervision training model, several recommendations are highlighted below:
- Structure initial training to include more training in cognitive intervention skills that clearly address criminogenic needs. Relationship-building skills are important, but training can be delivered separately, for example, through training in Motivational Interviewing;
- Explicitly describe the population the model intends to serve and evaluate its effectiveness;
- At a minimum, use regular coaching and for the long term;
- The organization must plan early for the possibility of full implementation by engaging the program creators for advice and potential advanced training of select in-house staff with the goal of maintaining the integrity and effectiveness of the model;
- Conduct a thorough review of existing policies to confirm that they are consistent with RNR;
- Ensure that there is a structure and the resources to support the successful implementation of the training model; and
- In any roll-out of a training model, an implementation should not proceed until a monitoring and evaluation system is established.
Bonta, J. (2021). Transforming community supervision through evidence-based practice. Public Safety Research Report. 2023-R004.
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Research Summaries are produced for the Crime Prevention Branch, Public Safety Canada. The summary herein reflects interpretations of the report authors’ findings and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Public Safety Canada.
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