1. Philadelphia (Pa.) Low-Intensity Community Supervision Experiment

Philadelphia (Pa.) Low-Intensity Community Supervision Experiment

Program Goals

The Philadelphia Low-Intensity Community Supervision Experiment was conducted to examine the effects of lowering the intensity of community supervision with low-risk offenders in an urban community. The purpose of the experiment was to test an alternative to the regional supervision model used by the Philadelphia (Pa.) Adult Probation and Parole Department (APPD), for which caseloads per officer had increased steadily for decades. The goal was to test whether no- or low-risk offenders could be supervised in large caseloads without increasing recidivism and risk to the public.


Earlier research on supervision intensity concentrated on the intensification of supervision programs (ISPs) for serious, higher-risk offenders on probation and parole. Many of the studies examining the effects of ISP for low-risk offenders found that recidivism rates actually increased in some cases (Barnes et al. 2010). There is little research currently available that has looked at the effects of reducing the intensity of supervision for less serious offenders. This was the first randomized trial of low-intensity probation or parole conducted at any level of risk classification (low risk or high risk).


Target Population/Target Sites

The aim of the experiment was to test the effects of reducing the intensity of community supervision for offenders who would be at low risk of committing serious offenses such as murder, attempted murder, aggravated assault, robbery, or sex crimes. Low risk was defined as “a forecast of no charges for serious crimes within 2 years of the probation or parole case start date” (Barnes et al. 2010, 168).


Low-risk offenders were identified using a modified version of a random forests model, which was originally designed to forecast homicide or attempted homicide (Berk et al. 2009). The basic method involved using information on each offender (prior criminal record and other baseline data) to forecast risk at the beginning of supervision, based on the recent 2-year outcomes of offenders with similar characteristics under the supervision of the APPD.


The experiment was conducted in the western and northeastern regions of Philadelphia.


Program Theory

The experiment was informed by three perspectives in criminological theory: specific deterrence, defiance theory, and deviant peer contagion and deviancy training. Specific deterrence predicts that crime will increase if supervision is decreased, whereas defiance and deviant contagion predict that crime will go down if supervision is reduced. The experiment was guided by these theories but did not aim to test their strength.


Program Components

Offenders in the experimental treatment group received low-risk, low-intensity supervision. They were placed into a fairly sizeable caseload with other low-risk offenders: each probation officer received and maintained a caseload of about 400 offenders. With such large caseloads, probation officers were not able to invest a substantial amount of time on each case.


Low-risk offenders were intended to receive a considerably reduced level of supervision compared with the standard model of regional supervision. The low-risk supervision protocols included:


·         Office reporting. Offenders were to have a scheduled office visit with the probation officer once every 6 months. These visits concentrated on a review of the offender’s residence, employment, payments of fines, and compliance with other conditions.

·         Telephone reporting. Offenders were to have a scheduled telephone report once every 6 months, occurring about midway between office visits. These contacts concentrated on confirming details described in the office visits. Offenders were not restricted from initiating additional telephone contact.

·         Drug testing. Drug tests were administered only if required by court order. Probation officers were instructed to order a drug evaluation after no more than three positive urine tests. Offenders could be referred for drug treatment if they requested it.

·         Missed contacts. Arrest warrants were issued if there was no contact with the offender for 6 months. If the offender surrendered voluntarily, the warrant could be removed with no criminal sanction.


Low-risk offenders were informed on their first visit that they were in a low-risk caseload and subject to the reduced reporting requirements described above. Offenders were also informed that they would be transferred back to standard supervision if they were rearrested for a new crime or if an arrest warrant was issued because there was no contact for 6 months.


Key Personnel

The experiment was conducted with the cooperation of the APPD of the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Low-intensity supervision was delivered by two probation officers, one for the western region and one for the northeastern region.

Intervention ID

18 to 100


Study 1

Postassignment Offenses

Barnes and colleagues (2010) found that the results of the Philadelphia Low-Intensity Community Supervision Experiment showed no evidence that reducing the intensity of supervision had any effect on the subsequent criminal behavior of low-risk offenders.


There were no significant differences, in any offense category, in the prevalence of one or more new criminal charges between low-risk offenders assigned to low-intensity supervision and those assigned to the control group who received standard regional supervision. There also were no significant differences in the frequency and prevalence of offenses committed during the 1-year observation period between the groups.


In addition, neither group was more likely to end up incarcerated locally than the other. Finally, there was no significant difference between the experimental and control group in the time to the first new offense postassignment.

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