Research: How COVID-19 impacted community supervision
Data show COVID-related changes increased supervisees’ positive views on interactions, officers
By Tara Kunkel
The coronavirus pandemic has meaningfully impacted community supervision agencies throughout the country and brought about a shift in agency practices. A recent study examines the facets of that shift and its effects on the perception of community supervision officers by those in their care.
The rise in the use of technology for interactions with supervisees and the reduction in the use of jail time for those in violation stand out as key changes resulting from the pandemic’s social-distancing guidelines.
The study found participants perceive the officers supervising them as a positive aspect of their lives. This raises important questions about the ways in which community supervision officers will interact with individuals under supervision in the future and sheds light on the importance of gauging how those under community supervision are responding to changes.
In the fall of 2020, Rulo Strategies, in collaboration with the National Center for State Courts and Wayne State University, initiated a national examination of court, treatment and community supervision practices adopted during the pandemic. In phase one of the study, the team focused on understanding the experiences of practitioners, which included community supervision officers working in treatment court settings such as drug courts. Phase two zeroed in on participants enrolled in judicially led programs and their experiences during the pandemic.
PHASE ONE: THE CHANGES
During phase one, survey data were collected from 500 team members, including more than 100 community supervision officers, from 298 judicially led programs in 40 states and territories in November and December 2020.
Survey respondents were asked about programmatic or policy changes that were made in their court programs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic at some point since March 2020, and if these changes continued to remain in effect at the time of responding to the survey.
The most common changes in practice made by community supervision agencies included reducing the use of jail as a sanction and reducing requirements that would potentially conflict with social-distancing practices. For example, 81.5% of programs reported reducing jail sanctions – with about half continuing this practice – and more than two-thirds reported suspending community service requirements.
More than half of the court programs and community supervision agencies stopped issuing sanctions for technical violations for both positive drug/alcohol screens and other forms of supervision non-compliance (58.3% and 52.3%, respectively).
As community supervision officers adjusted practices during the pandemic, 61.2% of the community supervision and law enforcement officers surveyed indicated a decrease in in-person supervision activities since March 2020. Half of the community supervision respondents indicated their office or court program had introduced new technology since March 2020 to support community supervision. This included mobile phone-based applications (41%), electronic monitoring (24%) and text-based check-ins (29%).
PHASE TWO: THE RESPONSE
Beginning in March 2021, the team launched phase two of the study that included an online survey to gather feedback directly from participants enrolled in judicially led programs. To date, nearly 1,000 surveys have been collected from participants in 28 states.
The survey examined the experiences of individuals currently under community supervision since the pandemic began. Almost half reported increased mental health symptoms and said they had experienced the loss of a job or income; 28% experienced a relapse in sobriety; 19% had a close friend or loved one who experienced a fatal or non-fatal overdose; and 11% had a loss of housing.
A significant number of respondents indicated they now meet with their community supervision officer virtually by phone or video (61.8%) while the rest are still meeting in person. Nearly three-quarters of respondents indicated contact with their probation officer was helpful pre-pandemic. Even more (83%) indicated their current contact with their officer was helpful.
Similarly, 73% of respondents indicated they could be open and honest with their probation officer before March 2020, and 88% of the respondents felt they could be open and honest currently.
When asked what was helpful to them, most respondents indicated check-in text messages are helpful or would be helpful, 63% indicated check-in calls are helpful or would be helpful, and 33% indicated home visits are or would be helpful.
The early survey data show that not only have supervisees seen community supervision officers as a source of support prior to the pandemic, but since its start, their positive perceptions of officers have been on the rise. It appears more outreach is appreciated and beneficial. With the ability to text and check in remotely, officers can interact with supervisees more often. Since the respondents in this particular study are participating in treatment courts, that frequent interaction may be offering an extra measure of support.
Some have argued that the reduced threat of jail time during the pandemic has resulted in individuals on community supervision feeling they can be more honest with their probation officer about the challenges they are experiencing. However, not all respondents committed violations, so this is less likely of a contributing factor.
Whatever the explanation, it is essential for the officers to know they are making a difference and that they should keep up what they are doing.
About the author
Tara Kunkel is the founder and executive director at Rulo Strategies. This work is being done in collaboration with Kristina Bryant at the National Center for State Courts and Brad Ray with the Center for Behavioral Health and Justice at Wayne State University.