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Comparing Public Safety Outcomes for Traditional Probation Versus Specialty Mental Health Probation

NCJ Number
Jama Psychiatry Volume: 74 Issue: 9 Dated: 2017 Pages: 942-948
Date Published
7 pages

This article reports on a research study aimed at determining whether specialty probation programs yield better public safety outcomes than traditional probation; it describes the longitudinal observational study, laying out the design, setting, and participant population, and interventions; and discusses main outcomes and measures, results, conclusions, and relevance for reform efforts.


Probation is a cornerstone of efforts to reduce mass incarceration. Although it is understudied, specialty probation could improve outcomes for the overrepresented group of people with mental illness. This paper describes a longitudinal observational study with group matching on age, sex, race/ethnicity, probation time, and offense at two urban agencies that exemplify specialty and traditional probation; the study's goal was test whether specialty probation yields better public safety outcomes than traditional probation. Enrollment began October 19, 2005; follow-up data were complete January 26, 2013. Participants were 359 diverse probationers with serious mental health problems and functional impairment. Probationers and officers were assessed three times and follow-up records were obtained. Machine learning algorithms were combined with a targeted maximum likelihood estimation, a double robust estimator that accounts for associations between confounders and both treatment assignment and outcomes. Statistical analysis was conducted from January 1, 2016, to May 5, 2017. Specialty probationers were assigned to small, homogeneous caseloads supervised by experts. Prior data indicated that specialty officers had better relationships with probationers, participated more in probationers’ treatment, and relied more on positive compliance strategies than traditional officers. Participants were 183 specialty and 176 traditional probationers. Although specialty probation had no significant effect on violence, the odds of rearrest were 2.68 times higher for traditional probationers than for specialty probationers. At two years, estimated probabilities of rearrest were 28.6 percent for specialty probationers and 51.8 percent for traditional probationers. Survival analyses indicate that arrest effects endured up to five years. The authors conclude that although it did not specifically reduce violence, well-implemented specialty probation appears to be effective in reducing general recidivism. Reform efforts for people with mental illness could leverage probation—a ubiquitous and revitalized node of the justice system. Publisher Abstract Provided

Date Published: January 1, 2017