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Parole Officers Take Empathy Training, Leading Recidivism to Drop


A new study by UC Berkeley reveals that empathy training for parole and parole officers leads to a decrease in recidivism. Job pressures and biases can negatively affect the relationship between probation officers and their clients. This can put offenders back in prison, perpetuating the cycle.

However, the positive psychology intervention created by UC Berkeley found that empathy training Mark the difference. In fact, it helped deepen the emotional connection between officers and their clients, which the study found may deter recidivism.

About the Berkeley Study

The findings were published on March 29, 2021 in the journal procedures of the National Academy of Sciences. The results show, on average, a 13% decrease in recidivism among clients of supervisors who participated in the study.

“If an officer received this empathic training, the real-world behavioral outcomes changed for the people they supervised, who, in turn, were less likely to go back to jail,” said study leader and lead author Jason Okonofua, assistant professor of psychology. at UC Berkeley. Study co-authors include Kimia Saadatian, Joseph Ocampo, Michael Ruiz and Perfecta Delgado Oxholm, all from UC Berkeley.

The findings are noteworthy as efforts are currently underway to reduce the prison population during the pandemic. Not to mention, the US criminal justice system has one of the highest recidivism rates in the world. In fact, around two-thirds of incarcerated people are re-arrested within three years of their release. On top of that, 50% end up behind bars again.

Okonofua, who has helped mediate teacher-student relationships to ensure that biases do not affect teachers’ disciplinary actions, says the following:

“The combination of COVID-19 and ongoing criminal justice reforms are moving more people away from incarceration and toward parole or parole, so we need to develop scalable ways to keep pace with this change.”

How they conducted the study on empathy training

A correctional department in a large city on the East Coast invited the UC Berkeley team to conduct the study. Okonofua and several of his graduate students wanted to know if empathy training for supervisory officers, recidivism would decrease.

The duties of probation and parole officers include monitoring clients’ whereabouts and ensuring that they attend court hearings. Additionally, they ensure clients undergo the necessary drug tests and provide resources to help prevent future arrests. They also make sure they don’t violate your probation.

For the study, the researchers surveyed more than 200 parole and parole officers who supervise more than 20,000 people. Offenders’ crimes range from violent crime to petty theft. Combining their expertise and that of other scholars, the researchers created and administered a 30-minute online empathy survey.

The survey asked questions about the following:

  • work motivation of officers;
  • biases and;
  • opinions about relationships and responsibilities.

To understand parole officers’ motivations and build empathy, the survey asked what they found rewarding about their work. One respondent said, “When I come across these guys and they do well, I say, ‘Great!’ Others said the most important aspect of their job is advocating for people in need.

The survey also addressed biases, including assumptions that people of certain backgrounds are at higher risk of committing crimes. He spoke of shocking cases in which probation officers took advantage of their power and abused clients. Additionally, the survey asked officers to rate how much responsibility they feel for the transgressions of their colleagues. Most of them said that they had no responsibility for the misconduct of their peers.

Ten months after administering the survey, the researchers found that empathy training caused recidivism to drop by 13%. Of course, this only included offenders whose parole and parole officers participated in the study. Investigation protocols do not allow for the release of the agency or its location.

The study did not include details about what prevented clients from committing more crimes after officers empathy training. However, the results of the study suggest that probation officers may have acted with more empathy toward their clients. The new relationship dynamics could have caused a reduction in recidivism, as clients felt they had more support and understanding.

“The officer is in a position of power to influence whether it’s going to be an empathic or punitive relationship in ways that the person on probation or parole is not,” Okonofua said. “As our study shows, the relationship between parole and probation officers and the people they supervise plays a critical role and can lead to positive outcomes, if efforts to be more understanding are considered.”

How Empathy and Better Treatment Programs Can Prevent People From Reoffending

Empathy can help mitigate life’s challenges and create stronger bonds between people. Everyone deserves empathy, but previously incarcerated people are particularly vulnerable, especially as they readjust to society. Many of them have trouble getting a job or reconnecting with loved ones after their release, which can trigger recidivism.

The United States has the the highest prison population of any country, with 655 prisoners for every 100,000 inhabitants of the country. The United States incarcerated about 2.12 million people in 2020. Prisons in the United States are overcrowded and often cannot accommodate people with special medical needs. While the country places great emphasis on getting criminals off the streets, it falls short in preventing people from repeating offenses.

The US Department of Justice lists several evidence-based rehabilitation strategies to reduce recidivism and help people get their lives back.

  • Assess the needs and background of each offender to ensure effective programs and treatments on an individual basis.
  • Have “school districts” within the federal prison system.
  • Encourage inmates to develop business job skills.
  • Prioritize mental health treatment for inmates.
  • Ensure inmates receive substance abuse treatment if necessary.

Final Thoughts: Study Shows Empathy Training May Reduce Inmate Chances Of Reoffending

A pioneering study from UC Berkeley reveals that empathy training for probation officers can reduce recidivism. They believe that officers’ increased empathy for clients led to a 13% decrease in recidivism. Hopefully, this study will encourage more interventions to strengthen relationships between probation officers and their clients.

In fact, those who served time for past mistakes deserve understanding and support. If probation officers can see their clients as people rather than just cases, it can make a huge difference.





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