The impact of an intensive supervision program on high-risk offenders: Manitoba's COHROU Program.

AuthorWeinrath, Michael
PositionCriminal Organization and High Risk Offender Unit


Intensive probation or parole supervision (ISP) programs have a long history in the United States (Robison, Wilkins, Carter, and Wahl, 1969; Petersilia and Turner, 1993; Fulton, Latessa, Stichman, and Travis, 1997) but much less is known about Canadian programs, which are few in number. Intensive supervision typically consists of frequent contact between probation officers and their clients, either in person or by telephone, and may also require additional surveillance measures, such as curfews, electronic monitoring, and urinalysis. Probation officers usually carry smaller caseloads (15-25), and in addition to surveillance, clients may be required to undertake treatment programs. As there is a paucity of research in this area, our study aims to contribute to the literature on and the knowledge base of Canadian corrections by providing a quantitative analysis of a Manitoba intensive supervision program, the Criminal Organization and High Risk Offender Unit (COHROU). This program has operated for over 10 years and provides a strong example of an enhanced intensive supervision initiative: COHROU targets high-risk offenders, includes frequent probation officer supervision, requires intensive programming of its clientele, and utilizes a police liaison mechanism that assists in monitoring and results in a quick response to violations of probation conditions. Not restricted to probation, COHROU also manages offenders placed on conditional sentences, as well as judicial restraint order cases under section 810 of the Criminal Code of Canada.

In the present paper, we also explore potential problems with ISPs. A traditional criticism of intensive supervision programs and other so-called intermediate sanctions (i.e., between prison and probation) is their failure to reduce the use of custody, instead increasing the use of harsh criminal justice measures (Gendreau, Goggin, and Fulton 2000; Petersilia and Turner 1993). In practice, ISPs may widen the net of the criminal justice system by capturing too many minor offenders along with so-called high-risk cases, thus subjecting those who should be on a less intrusive form of probation to more intensive monitoring. Furthermore, penalties for failure on intensive supervision can also be so severe that cost-savings from initially preventing incarceration are rendered moot.

While noting that prison conditions and lengthy custodial sentences merit attention, abolitionist scholars have argued that there needs also to be a focus on the growth of punitive practices in the community (Cohen 1985; Piche and Larsen 2010). While much has been written about the escalation of punitive legislation and the custody explosion in the United States over the past 30 years (Kuhlman 2011), less has been written about Canada and its subtle movement toward more restrictive criminal legislation, particularly with respect to community corrections dispositions, such as probation, conditional sentences, and judicial restraint orders (Solicitor General Canada 2001). Prison abolitionists have argued that corrections critics need to reduce their focus on prison conditions and lengthy sentences and expand their perspective to recognize the growth in punitive penal practices in the community (Piche and Larsen 2010).

Literature review

Intensive supervision and intermediate sanctions

Born out of probation, intensive supervision programs were initiated to see if lower caseloads might lead to better casework by probation officers (PO) and thus lower offender recidivism. A familiar refrain from probation officers was that they never had sufficient time to supervise and/or provide effective casework services to clients, who might number in the eighties on their caseloads. In fact, even 30 or 40 cases per officer were considered too many to provide strong service. Claims about this limitation may well have been used to shield probation practice from early evaluations that provided rather negative conclusions about PO efficacy and their ability to manage offenders (Rumney and Murphy 1952). The first intensive supervision probation program in the US state of California had a group of probation officers manage no more than 15 clients, much fewer than other staff. In the famed "San Francisco project," it was found that lower caseloads did not, in fact, result in lower reoffence rates, and actually increased the number of technical violations, or breaches of probation (Robison at al. 1969).

In the 1980s and 1990s, the United States saw a dramatic increase in its incarceration rates, and federal and state corrections budgets underwent considerable strain trying to build and maintain prisons to keep up with this increase. As part of a movement toward the use of intermediate sanctions to limit custody, intensive probation and parole supervision programs were increasingly implemented in an effort to provide a cost-effective, viable alternative to jail and alleviate stress on over-crowded prisons. These programs relied on two distinct but overlapping theories of offender behaviour. First, a deterrence-based focus advocated frequent visits or checks by probation officers, together with curfews, urinalysis, and in some cases, electronic monitoring to deter probationers. Second, a social learning or treatment focus involved offenders in various behavioural programs to assist in rehabilitation (Clear and Hardyman 1990). Overall, ISP programs tended to succeed in achieving surveillance objectives (frequent contacts, urinalysis conducted), but treatment regimens were implemented haphazardly. While early programs showed promise (Erwin 1990), later evaluations uncovered problems (Petersilia and Turner 1993). Substantial failure rates were observed because of tight supervision and the high-risk nature of the clientele, while additional incarceration costs were incurred because of high failure rates, particularly in the case of parole (i.e., cost of ISP + cost of incarceration for failures = more days in jail than original prison sentence). ISP programs fared better when they used more program involvement (Aos, Miller, and Drake 2006; Fulton et al., 1997; Lowenkamp, Flores, Holsinger, Makarios, and Latessa 2010; Gendreau et al. 2000).

Over the last decade research has provided more promising results for ISPs and given even greater support to treatment-oriented ISPs (Paparazzi and Gendreau 2005; Jalbert and Rhodes 2012; Lowenkamp et al. 2010). In contrast to earlier research, lower caseloads have now been shown to be helpful when connected with evidence-based practices (Jalbert, Rhodes, Flygare, and Kane 2010). In a meta-analysis, Lowenkamp et al. (2010) found that human-services-oriented ISPs reduced recidivism by 6%, but those with high treatment integrity scores reduced recidivism by 17%. Surveillance-oriented programs tended to show higher rates of recidivism in the form of new crimes and technical violations. Wodahl, Garland, Culhane, and McCarty (2011) found that both sanctions and rewards were useful in an ISP, but generally more effective when the ratio was four rewards per one sanction.

Canadian programs

On the Canadian scene, few examples of intensive supervision programs can be found for the 1980s or 1990s, likely because we did not experience the same inmate population pressures as Americans did. The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) experimented with intensive supervision for their conditional release program in the early 1990s (Pisapio 1995), using the Toronto Team Supervision Unit to manage high-risk statutory release cases (offenders released in the last third of their sentence despite not applying for parole). In response to an auditor general's report in 1999, CSC began to examine more carefully defined models of intensive supervision for high-risk parolees across all five regions. Serin, Vuong, and Briggs (2003) reported some positive results for these pilots. Selecting comparison groups by using a retrospective design, they found that the ISP group tended to survive longer in the community and experienced relatively lower parole revocations.

Electronic monitoring (EM) often accompanies intensive supervision, but in Canada, interest in this program has varied from province to province. British Columbia, Newfoundland, and Saskatchewan were the first provinces to use EM to any significant degree in conjunction with intensive probation supervision. At the provincial level, Bonta, Wallace-Capretta, and Rooney (2000) found, in a study of probationers from British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland, that intensive supervision, coupled with cognitive skills training, reduced recidivism significantly compared to a matched sample control group. Notably, only the provision of intensive treatment, not electronic monitoring, was correlated with lower recidivism. Also significant was a negative outcome for low-risk offenders on intensive supervision. Bonta et al. (2000) found that low-risk cases on intensive supervision had higher recidivism rates than the comparison group. This supported a fundamental risk principle of Andrews and Bonta's (2010) Risk-Needs-Responsivity model of offender rehabilitation: high treatment dosages are most effectively deployed to higher-risk offenders. Intense treatment for those who do not require it may actually raise the likelihood of reoffence.

ISP and the extension of social control and punishment

A traditional question facing all intermediate sanction programs is whether or not they "widen the net" of social control by the state, failing as custody alternatives and extending the amount of time that individuals are subject to state supervision. More recent criticisms have focused on how intermediate sanctions can use the benevolent promises of treatment without jail to mask an increase in the punitiveness and coerciveness of community dispositions.

The introduction of the concept of the high-risk offender may well be correlated with the use of more intrusive...

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