Cover: Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Technical Violations of Probation or Parole Supervision

Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Technical Violations of Probation or Parole Supervision

Published Nov 6, 2023

by Joe Russo, Samuel Peterson, Michael J. D. Vermeer, Dulani Woods, Brian A. Jackson

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Research Questions

  1. What do racial and ethnic disparities in technical violations of community supervision look like, and what are the sources of these disparities?
  2. What can community supervision agencies and jurisdictional stakeholders do to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the processing of technical violations?

Racial and ethnic disparities are pervasive in the U.S. criminal justice system. These disparities often compound as an individual progresses through each stage of the justice system, beginning with police contact and continuing through prosecution and correctional control. Not surprisingly, people of color are overrepresented in the probation and parole population, yet relatively little attention has been paid to disparate treatment and outcomes at this stage.

Probation and parole staff and other system actors exercise considerable discretion in responding to technical violations. Technical violations are instances of noncompliance with the conditions of supervision — such as failing to report to the supervising officer, leaving the jurisdiction without permission, and testing positive on a drug test—that, while not criminal, can lead to severe consequences for justice-involved individuals. The spectrum of responses to technical violations can range from a warning all the way up to a recommendation to revoke supervision. Evidence suggests that technical violations are an important driver of incarceration.

The handling of technical violations may be influenced by a variety of factors, including officer judgment and jurisdictional policy, and there is evidence of racial and ethnic disparities in how they are handled. Ultimately, disparities in the processing of technical violations can exacerbate and perpetuate existing disparities in incarceration and undermine the legitimacy of the justice system. This report presents findings and recommendations from an expert panel that explored challenges and opportunities associated with reducing disparities at the technical violation decision point.

Key Findings

  • The lack of evidence on the sources of disparities in community supervision contributes to a lack of known approaches for responding to them.
  • The working relationship between an officer and a supervisee is critical to successful outcomes.
  • A lack of diversity or cultural sensitivity among officers and supervisee perceptions of justice system illegitimacy can be barriers to forming quality relationships of trust.
  • Research is needed to determine the impacts of (1) such factors as the working relationship between and officer and a supervisee, a lack of diversity or cultural sensitivity among officers, and supervisee perceptions of justice system illegitimacy on supervisee violation behaviors, (2) responses to these behaviors, and (3) disparities.
  • Supervisees of color often have inequitable access to resources, which can be a barrier to successful completion of supervision and a contributing factor in disparate outcomes.
  • Information management tools are needed to increase transparency about and accountability for disparities.
  • Jurisdictions would benefit from developing data dashboards to help track, analyze, and display key metrics so that progress may be measured — and corrective actions taken as needed — at the officer and agency levels.

Recommendations

  • Develop best practices for the use of technology to eliminate barriers to compliance. Evaluate pros, cons, and impacts of these approaches on outcomes and disparities.
  • Develop best practices and strategies to directly provide resources (e.g., food pantries, clothing, transit vouchers) to disadvantaged supervisees and/or coordinate with community resources to provide these services. Explore the feasibility of monetary assistance for sustenance and/or emergency support.
  • Conduct research into supervisee perceptions of the justice system’s legitimacy along racial and ethnic lines and the impact of these perceptions on compliance and outcomes.
  • Conduct research to determine whether the use of credible messengers improves relationships with supervisees and to examine the impact of this practice on supervision outcomes.
  • Study jurisdictions that have reduced disparities to better understand the dynamics associated with successful outcomes and to develop an evidence base of effective strategies.
  • Conduct research to determine the impacts of more-general system reforms (e.g., caps on probation sentences, reductions in the number of technical violations) on disparities in technical violation behaviors, responses, and outcomes.
  • Develop management tools (e.g., dashboards) to track disparity metrics, in near real time, at the agency, supervisor, and officer levels to promote transparency and accountability and to identify patterns to be investigated and addressed (e.g., coachable moments for staff, policy or program review).
  • Reinforce supervision practices in which staff actively engage in barrier-reduction strategies to "meet supervisees where they are" in terms of appropriate accommodations and service delivery that do not compromise public safety.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the National Institute of Justice and conducted by the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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