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Empathy training courses for parole officers lead to a 13% drop in reoffending rates

A new study has found that empathy training courses for parole officers lead to a 13% reduction in their parolees' recidivism rates 10 months later.

A new study has found that empathy training courses for parole officers lead to a 13% reduction in their parolees’ recidivism rates 10 months later.

The study appeared on March 29 in the journal PNAS.

Empathy training courses for 216 parole officers

The study’s participants were 216 probation or parole officers in a large US city. Together, they are responsible for overseeing more than 20,000 “adults on probation or parole” (APPs).

The officers completed a 30-minute online exercise that was designed to affirm their sense of purpose, and enhance their understanding of the parolees’ perspectives.

Ten months after this “empathic supervision intervention,” there was a 13% reduction in the parolees’ recidivism rates.

The role of the parole officer in the “path from prison back to prison”

Incarceration is a major problem in the United States, one that is “enormously costly to families, communities, and society at large,” as the authors write.

They wanted to investigate whether the “path from prison back to prison” may depend in part on a parolee’s relationship with their probation or parole officer.

The research team designed an intervention that would make the officers more aware of “how they perceive outgroup versus ingroup behaviors.”

The idea was to make them less likely “to collectively blame an outgroup individual for the acts of their group.”

The 216 probation and parole officers represented 76% of all the PPOs in their department.

The participants were randomly assigned to take part in one of two interventions. One was the “empathic supervision intervention,” described below.

The other was a control, or “placebo” intervention. Instead of focusing on empathy, it focused on how officers can use technology to be better organized.

The empathy exercise asked the officers to respond to questions such as “why is it important for parolees and probationers [i.e. people on probation] to feel valued and respected?”

They were also asked to write a letter to a future officer in training.

In that letter, they offered tips on how to avoid the job becoming too impersonal, and how to “remember the humanity” in their work.

Effects of parole officer attitudes, 10 months later

Ten months later, among the participants who underwent the empathy exercise, there was a significant (13%) reduction in the number of their APPs who violated the terms of their probation or parole.

These effects held even after controlling for the officers’ race, gender, years of experience, and departmental division.

The study also found that the officers who underwent the empathy intervention showed significantly less “collective blame” towards APPs.

These findings suggest that the relationships between parole officers and their parolees “are a pivotal entry point to combat recidivism rates,” the authors write.

Likewise, the study indicates that targeted psychological interventions such as these “can lead to long-term reductions in violations and recidivism.”

The effect of this brief intervention could also lead to vast taxpayer savings.

Figures from the US Bureau of Justice put the current cost of “public corrections agencies (i.e., prisons, jails, parole, and probation)” at $80.7 billion.

A 13% reduction in recidivism, then, would mean huge savings.

Empathy training courses on the rise

Researchers have previously used so-called “wise interventions” of this type in various contexts.

They have led to significant improvements in realms as diverse as education, teen pregnancy, voter turnout, personal health, and more.

Wise interventions usually target the stigmatized, or “negatively affected,” group.

But in this case, the intervention targeted the “gate-keepers”: people “in an influential position to set the tone of the relationship, change the context, and determine the outcomes.” In other words, the parole officers rather than their parolees.

“The present research,” the authors write, “is proof of this concept and that it can work in a scalable manner.”

“If a targeted shift in dozens of officers’ mindsets can cause thousands of individuals to not return to jail in a single year,” they conclude, “then there is potential for lasting effects on other pervasive and pivotal issues in criminal justice and beyond.”


Study:A scalable empathic supervision intervention to mitigate recidivism from probation and parole
Authors: Jason A. Okonofua, Kimia Saadatian, Joseph Ocampo, Michael Ruiz, and Perfecta Delgado Oxholm
Published in: PNAS
Publication date: March 29, 2021


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Douglas Heingartner

Douglas Heingartner

Douglas Heingartner, the editor of PsychNewsDaily, is a journalist based in Amsterdam. He has written about science, technology, and more for publications including The New York Times, The Economist, Wired, the BBC, The Washington Post, New Scientist, The Associated Press, IEEE Spectrum, Quartz, The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Times, Frieze, and others. His Google Scholar profile is here, his LinkedIn profile is here, and his Muck Rack profile is here.