Empathy training for parole officers reduces parolees’ recidivism

March 29, 2021

Empathy training might reduce recidivism. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)

Parole and probation officers who completed a 30-minute empathy exercise experienced a decreased belief that parolees would reoffend, according to a new study by University of California, Berkeley, psychologists, with the parolees under the officers' oversight exhibiting a 13% reduction in recidivism in the 10 months that followed.

The findings, detailed in a March 29 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America journal article, showed that, contrary to the researchers' predictions, officers did not display higher levels of job satisfaction or empathy toward parolees immediately following the intervention. Instead, the notable positive results emerged in subsequent surveys of the officers 10 months later.

Kimia Saadatian, a research assistant at Berkeley who contributed to the study, told The Academic Times that the team's findings provided insight into how subtle shifts in parole officers' thought processes can have real-world consequences.

"There is growing evidence that interventions that target the attributions people make about themselves, others and situations can have key, lasting impacts on pervasive societal issues," Saadatian said.

The empathy training intended to curb "collective blame," a phenomenon in which a person may attribute a negative quality to all members of a particular group, even when only certain individuals from the group carry the trait. In particular, the experiment prompted officers to read through a series of passages and answer questions that would help the officers acknowledge inconsistencies and biases in their own belief patterns. 

One section of the intervention asked officers to read an article that detailed the importance of fostering meaningful relationships between parolees and the officers tasked with monitoring them. Toward the end of the online session, the officers wrote a letter to a new recruit, describing what they found meaningful about their work. This, the researchers posited, would help officers take ownership over what they had learned during the training and allow them to describe the new concepts in their own words.

The 216 parole and probation officers who participated in the study had, on average, worked in the profession for 10 years and were collectively responsible for nearly 20,500 parolees. Ten months after the intervention, officers who participated in the training were asked to rate whether parolees were bound to recommit the crimes they'd been charged with, on a scale of zero to 100. Officers who participated in the training scored nearly five points lower than a control group, representing a significant increase in empathy toward people who are on parole or probation.

The U.S. incarcerates around 25% of the world's prisoners — a higher number than any other country — despite having only about 5% of the globe's population. In 2012, incarceration-related costs in the U.S. added up to over $80 billion. And five out of six state prisoners are arrested within nine years of their initial release, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. 

The Berkeley researchers said that empathy training sessions like the one conducted for the experiment could serve as a relatively low-cost measure to shrink recidivism rates. Even a modest reduction in recidivism could prevent thousands of people in the parole and probation systems from returning to prison, the researchers noted. The online training is also a low-cost solution, especially compared with in-person training sessions that can take months to organize.

"The online and time/cost-efficient format of this intervention addresses significant issues of scalability faced by other popular, often intensive, training programs that are often unsuccessful," Saadatian said. "The success of interventions like this depend on the extent to which they can shift the mindsets of the participants, and it's not necessarily the case that longer interventions are more effective."

In future experiments, the Berkeley researchers hope to tweak the length of time and format of the studies to gauge whether it's possible to reduce the rate of recidivism to a greater extent.

The study notes that targeted interventions have been useful in improving "education, teen pregnancies, parenting, voter turnout, personal health and intergroup relationships," but in most of those cases, the interventions were given to stigmatized groups that faced the brunt of discrimination. The Berkeley experiment took the opposite approach: It directed its training toward the officers in charge.

"If a targeted shift in dozens of officers' mindsets can cause thousands of individuals to not return to jail in a single year, then there is potential for lasting effects on other pervasive and pivotal issues in criminal justice and beyond," the authors wrote.

The study, "A scalable empathic supervision intervention to mitigate recidivism from probation and parole," was published on March 29 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, and was authored by Jason A. Okonofua, Kimia Saadatian, Joseph Ocampo, Michael Ruiz, and Perfecta Delgado Oxholm, University of California, Berkeley.

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