Probation officers assume a large level of responsibility for the offenders in their care and the community at large. They are responsible for monitoring criminal offenders and assessing what level of risk they pose to the general public. When offenders commit an infraction, such as a technical violation of not meeting the conditions of their probation, it is up to the probation officer to manage that infraction and ultimately decide the consequence. Individuals who struggle with mental health issues such as depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar account for a large percentage of offenders. Unlike offenders with substance abuse problems, the main cause of reincarceration for mentally ill offenders is a technical violation, not a new criminal offense. Research has shown that in fact, mentally ill offenders are just as unlikely to commit a new offense as are offenders with no history of mental illness or drug abuse. But unfortunately, mentally ill offenders are monitored more closely and assessed more harshly than substance abusing offenders.
Jennifer Eno Louden of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas recently conducted a study to better evaluate the conditions by which probation officers assess and manage mentally ill offenders. Her goal was to determine whether these offenders were being unfairly assessed, resulting in increased rates of reincarceration. Louden enlisted 234 probation officers and presented them with probation violation scenarios committed by a mentally ill offender, an offender with substance use issues, an offender with both problems, and an offender with neither. She evaluated their risk assessments and management recommendations and found that even though statistics show substance users as more likely to engage in violent acts, the officers rated the mentally ill offenders as being 13% more likely to commit acts of violence.
The primary risk management strategy recommended by the officers was forced psychological treatment, usually in the form of medication. Although mental health treatment is not a negative recommendation, forcing the treatment is seen as a cause for concern. For these individuals, many of whom have schizophrenia, the negative side effects of medication can cause more harm than good. The goal of treatment was not helping the offenders address their mental health problems but rather managing their behavior; however, it did not help them decrease their chance of reoffending. Louden believes this study demonstrates the need for further training and education for probation officers who work with mentally ill offenders. She said, “By targeting interventions away from a sole focus on mental disorder toward robust predictors of recidivism, real improvements can be made in the criminal justice outcomes for offenders with mental disorders.”
Eno Louden, J., Skeem, J. L. (2012). How do probation officers assess and manage recidivism and violence risk for probationers with mental disorder? An experimental investigation. Law and Human Behavior. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/h0093991
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