Probation Officers Often Distort Risk Assessment for Mentally Ill Offenders

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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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Janie Few

    April 17th, 2012 at 4:36 AM

    I am a little dismayed that probation officers, who you know have little to no training in assessing mental illness, could be punishing mentally ill offenders more harshly than those who are not. That is insane to put this sort of power into the hands of those who really have no business making these kinds of determinations at all. I know that they have to make sure that their offenders are abiding by the law, but they do not have to punish them more severely that you would anyone else.

  • Mark A

    February 17th, 2017 at 7:50 AM

    You are so very right.Iambic in a situation where I know who is the perpetrator . Iam aware of all the ways I have been entrapment and the abuse that I and my mother have been subjected too and it me please ? I suffer firm being incontrolled lired to .and I haven’t seen my mother I almost a year when I git breached.Help my mother’s see me.please???

  • DJ Jaffe

    April 17th, 2012 at 1:52 PM

    Would the author cite the source for this claim, “For these individuals, many of whom have schizophrenia, the negative side effects of medication can cause more harm than good.”? Thank you.

  • sullivan

    April 17th, 2012 at 3:50 PM

    There is such inherent corruption and miseducation in our supposed justice system that it is a wonder that we ever get any kind of fairness! How can one man’s life be in the hands of just one other? Something about that seems so wrong to me, especially when most of these probation officers have very little training to deal with the individual situations that they have to face with each new client. Clearly the statistics here exemplify that we need far more education and training in this field than was previously realized. Sadly, we seem to only want to lock them up and throw away the key, but as has been shown time and again this is not the answer either.

  • Aline

    April 18th, 2012 at 4:20 AM

    I would like to know if you feel like a family member or friend who has a probation officer who is not treating them fairly, is there any recourse or do you simply have to abide by what they say? I guess there is always going to be someone to listen to you if you have the money to hire a lawyer again, but what if this is not an option?

  • Rush

    April 19th, 2012 at 12:32 AM

    No doubt there are certain prejudices against people having such problems but to know law enforcement officials do that is a bit scary.

  • Leonard Richard Nicholas Ryan

    December 4th, 2013 at 1:49 PM

    Does anyone have complaints about probation supervisors not been fair my one asked me to work on a different project with someone else who I never meet knowing I have anxiety and panic attacks and not contracted to that project also now has said I failed to report since I got that phone call to work elsewhere i believe this is a breach of conditions

  • Pauline A.

    April 21st, 2016 at 2:23 AM

    My husband is mentaly ill doing four yrs probation! His condition of hyperthriod

    snd graves deases lack of taking his

    medications and his biopolar he has caused alot of problems at home and out in the comunity making false police reports harrssing friends and family members he was court ordered to nental hospital for a week during his stay he had utilitys cut off had my cell phn disconected! Officers have been to our home 12 times in one month becaude of his behavior! He has been verbally abusing me does not sleep at night! The lack of sleep has him delousiinal accuses me if having affairs has kicked doos in punched holes in walls! Ive told probatiin officer about hus behaviors the voience was exculating

  • The Team

    April 21st, 2016 at 8:52 AM

    Hi Pauline,

    Thank you for your comment. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about domestic violence at: and additional information about what to do in a crisis at

    Warm regards,
    The Team

  • Amber W J

    December 13th, 2017 at 6:19 AM

    I am on probation for I don’t know even how long. I have done everything they asked. The only saving grace for the probation fees is that I was left a little money in my grandmothers will and her car. I do not do drugs, I got a mental health evaluation, I have paid my fines. I know for sure I paid for and took one mandatory class. I just want for everything to be done with-I honestly cannot take this hanging over my head. Between probation and their requirements, paying them, sitting in jail 6 months, my dad throwing all my possessions away, my daughter trying to make me sign a POA so she inherits all that my grandmother left me, my dad making me put his food on my food stamp card the list just keeps going. All I want is to buy an RV with my inheritance and be left alone. I am not some big time or even small time criminal-I truly think I am and have been taken advantage of by everyone. This is not the first time, when my other grandparents died, my dad made me sign over a certain amount to him and not contest the will, but he had already sold and profittedvindictive and on everything. I am so tired of being taken advantage of because I am not mean vindictive and am so afraid of being homeless. you can’t call me because my dad will know-he moniters EVERYTHING I do. ****, my only outlet in life is to go down the street to the food pantry once a week. All I want is an RV, disability OR a job (that’s another dang issue). I am not exaggerating or modifying the truth. I honestly feel like I would have been better off playing the “*****” role years ago as opposed to ALWAYS getting screwed because I’m nice. I have little money and a 1997 Lexus to my name. I cannot get a job because that would screw up my disability claim (which has been going on for well over a year now). You want to say I cannot hold down a job, but you won’t give me disability, probation says I owe this much money, yet my dad won’t let mee pay it all in one lump sum, I appearantly don’t load the dishwasher properly, I get up too early, we can’t go get the medication prescribed to me, because we would have to drive 10 minutes away. I would sooooooo rather be alone and lonely then all this.

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