Setting Parole Conditions to Achieve Public Safety

Understanding the Evidence and Its Implications for Setting Parole Conditions

A Targeted, Evidence Based Approach to Setting Conditions

A key challenge facing paroling authorities is setting conditions that will contribute to an offender's successful completion of supervision, because, as we are beginning to understand more clearly, if an offender is successful, the community is safer.  If an offender can complete supervision with no new crimes, no new victims, and—having had a supervision experience that has reduced his risk of re-offending in the future—the risk to the community is reduced.  

The American Probation and Parole Association advises that conditions be "…realistic, relevant, and research-based" (Solomon, et al. 2008).  Research-based conditions are supported by evidence illustrating the importance of targeting by risk, need and responsivity, and a connection between compliance and behavior change leading to improved public safety (Solomon, et al. 2008).  The authors further state that realistic conditions should be:

Given that risk of reoffense is a paramount concern, understanding evidence-based approaches to risk reduction is of central importance to parole Boards.  The term "evidence-based" refers to the application of policies and practices based on the results from sound, empirical research (Carter, 2011).  Such research has demonstrated that level of risk and type of needs can be assessed by using appropriate, empirically-based assessment tools; and recidivism can be substantially reduced when the criminogenic needs of high and medium risk offenders are addressed through effective interventions/programs provided to those individuals.  In sum, this research encourages policy and practice that:

In applying this research to the specific issue of setting parole conditions, parole Boards should: 

  1. Assure that valid, empirically-based assessments of risk and need are available as part of the information routinely available, understood, and used as conditions are set.
  2. Minimize requirements on low risk offenders.
  3. Fashion conditions imposed upon medium and high risk offenders to link them to interventions and programs tailored to address and reduce their criminogenic needs.

Further, the research has identified risk factors that are found with high frequency in the offender population.  Static factors that are highly predictive of risk to re-offend include (Gendreau, Little, and Goggin, 1996): 

The most commonly crime-producing dynamic risk factors or criminogenic needs include (Andrews et al. 2006):

Because static these factors cannot, by definition, be changed, it is important—for those assessed at medium and high risk—to also assess dynamic risk and criminogenic needs which can then be targeted for change. 

Research establishes that the likelihood of re-offense can be diminished if the level of intervention— both monitoring and treatment—is matched to the assessed level of risk (Andrews 2007; Andrews and Bonta 2007; Andrews, Bonta, and Wormith 2006; Andrews and Dowden 2007; Andrews, Dowden, and Gendreau 1999; Bonta 2007; Dowden 1998; Gendreau, Goggin, and Little 1996; Lipsey and Cullen 2007).  Therefore, a reduction in recidivism among the high risk offender population is best achieved by delivering high intensity interventions (i.e., 200-300 hours of programming over 6-12 months), while reductions in recidivism among the moderate risk population is best achieved through the delivery of moderately intensive interventions (e.g., 100 hours over a modest length of time period of 3-6 months) (Bourgon and Armstrong 2005; Gendreau and Goggin 1996).  The research is also clear that the greater the number of criminogenic needs addressed within a single individual, the greater the reduction in risk of recidivism.  Where evidence-based interventions are effectively applied and targeted to address the assessed criminogenic needs of medium and high risk offenders, recidivism rates can be reduced an average of 30% (Andrews and Bonta 1998).


The Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole (Board) has articulated formally in their Parole Release Decision Making Guidelines that low risk offenders will be considered for release at their first eligibility. The guidelines also prohibit the imposition of special conditions in these cases, barring special exceptions. For those offenders assessed to be at very low or low risk:

"Generally, release is suggested at the first hearing with a standard parole plan and conditions. No special conditions are recommended unless there is a documented need."

Low Risk Offenders

Conversely, the research explains that the best outcomes with the low risk population are achieved through low levels of intervention.  In fact, higher levels of intervention—extended periods of incarceration; and/or requiring involvement in intensive interventions—can actually increase the likelihood that low risk offenders will re-offend (Andrews and Bonta 2007; Cullen and Gendreau 2000; Gendreau et al. 2001; Lowenkamp, Latessa, and Holsinger 2006).  This finding is of particular import to paroling authorities who are making release decisions and setting conditions, because this research  suggests that requiring programs and treatment for this group—through the imposition of conditions requiring such interventions—can do more to increase risk than  to reduce it.

Particularly in this era of budget constraints, these findings suggest that requiring program participation from a group of offenders who already have an expected low rate of recidivism is hardly the best use of resources.  Outcomes are much more impactful when programming is directed toward a population of offenders who have been assessed to be at a higher risk to recidivate.  Second, the research documents that placing low-risk populations in housing, reporting, and treatment proximity to others at high risk can actually pose an iatrogenic effect of increasing their risk to reoffend (see, e.g., Andrews and Bonta, 1998; Dishion et al., 1999).   

Conditions of Parole Shape the Important Use of Supervision Staff Time

The list of supervision conditions typically imposed by Boards has grown considerably in many jurisdictions.  Many agencies have an extensive list of general and special conditions that can be— and are—often mandated.  As the NPRC has worked with Boards across the nation, it has become clear that some Boards assume that the "standard" conditions typically required of offenders are required by statute.  That is often not the case, and as Boards explore potential changes in practice, it is helpful to document the origin and authority underlying conditions. 

Benefits that Can Be Accrued from Reconsidering Condition Setting from this New Perspective

Implementing new approaches brings new challenges.  Some Boards may be reluctant to change, based on their confidence in a system with which they are familiar.  Other Boards may be concerned that changing these practices would require time, effort, and resources that are in all-too short supply. However, the potential benefits of using an evidence-based approach to condition setting are significant.  They include:

  • Improved outcomes – reduced risk of re-offense, reduced technical supervision violations, and increased public safety;
  • Reduced costs – lower rates of recidivism and returns to incarceration that can reduce fiscal burdens on the system overall;
  • Consistency in decision-making practices–assuring even-handedness and fundamental fairness; and,
  • Enhanced ability to explain and support decisions – helpful as Boards undertake public and stakeholder education efforts—to build understanding and support for the work of parole Boards.  This will also be important when responding to high profile case failures.

Boards should also consider carefully the reasons, types, and number of conditions imposed.  Appropriately tying conditions to an individual's level of risk and criminogenic needs enhances the likelihood that offenders will be able to meet their conditions and pose a lower risk of recidivism.  For example, imposing substance abuse treatment would be an appropriate condition for an offender imprisoned for a drug-related offense—provided, of course, that such an offender has been assessed at medium or high risk to re-offend, and that substance abuse has been identified as a criminogenic need in his or her case.  The treatment would address an identified criminogenic need by targeting specific risk factors connected to their reason for being imprisoned.  Thus, matching interventions with assessed criminogenic needs of medium and high risk offenders is a significant strategy for risk reduction and enhanced use of resources.  At the same time, imposing treatment requirements on an individual convicted of a drug-related crime—but who is in a low-risk group, or for whom substance abuse has not been identified as a criminogenic need—would not be appropriate.  It would divert that treatment slot from someone at higher risk, thereby representing a waste of resources and possibly increasing the risk of the person required to participate.

It has also been observed that the weight and complexity of multiple conditions can have a profound impact on the offender's overall ability to comply with the terms of supervision (Stroker, 2010).  Emerging research is also beginning to demonstrate that the time supervision officers spend on compliance-related activities is much less productive than time spent interacting with offenders to enhance motivation, solve problems, and reinforce their risk reduction efforts (Carter, 2011).  Therefore, when an offender is mandated to abide by an excessive number of conditions (that are likely to pose compliance challenges), a considerable portion of the parole officer's time will be spent monitoring and responding to the offender's compliance with or refusal to comply with those conditions.  Perhaps counter-intuitively, then, the imposition of multiple conditions (which require significant time on the part of supervision officers solely for monitoring purposes), particularly with lower risk offenders—or conditions unrelated to criminogenic needs--can take away from the time officers can spend on other activities that have proven to be more impactful in terms of reducing risk.

This Action Guide has been developed to assist paroling authorities who have made the decision to explore, and perhaps make changes, in this area.  Action steps in the next section can be used by a Board in following a process of clearly understanding current practice and, if desired, of developing an action plan for change.

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