A Rapid Evidence Assessment of the impact of probation caseloads on reducing recidivism and other probation outcomes

AuthorJordan Harrison,Russell Webster,Chris Fox,Grace Hothersall,Andrew Smith
Published date01 June 2022
Date01 June 2022
Subject MatterArticles
A Rapid Evidence
Assessment of the impact
of probation caseloads
on reducing recidivism
and other probation
Chris Fox , Jordan Harrison, Grace Hothersall
and Andrew Smith
Manchester Metropolitan University, UK
Russell Webster
Independent Consultant, UK
We undertook a Rapid Evidence Assessment to explore the existing empirical
evidence relating to the impact of probation caseloads on recidivism. Over 3,000
potentially relevant papers were sifted from which five were deemed robust enough to
be analysed in detail. All five were US studies which examined the impact of particular
initiatives to reduce caseloads and were delivered by mainstream community-based
probation officers. All recorded reductions in measured outcomes compared to
comparators. Overall, although the number of robust studies remains quite small for
such a key area of consideration, there appears to be a growing body of evidence that
lower probation caseloads have a positive impact in terms of reducing reoffending in
the USA. All five studies looked at a range of criminal justice outcomes including
technical probation violations, violations for new arrests and reconvictions. Interest-
ingly, although researchers were expecting to find a higher rate of probation viola-
tions among the cohorts supervised by probation officers with lower caseloads (due to
the increased intensity of supervision), this did not turn out to be the case.
Corresponding Author:
Chris Fox, Manchester Metropolitan University, Geoffrey Manton Building, Rosamond St West, Manchester
M15 6LL, UK.
Email: c.fox@mmu.ac.uk
Probation Journal
ªThe Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/02645505211025595
The Journal of Community and Criminal Justice
2022, Vol. 69(2) 138–158
caseload, probation, recidivism, engagement, breach, Rapid Evidence Assessment
In this paper we report on a Rapid Evidence Assessment (REA) of the impact of
probation caseloads on reducing recidivism and a number of ‘intermediate out-
comes’ such as improving engagement, improving completions, reducing breaches
and reducing staff absence. It is important to distinguish between (i) caseload,
which equates to the number of cases handled in a given period by an organisation
or by an individual, and (ii) workload, which is the amount of work allocated to an
individual or a team. The focus of this REA was on the former and aspects of pro-
bation caseload we were interested in included managing caseloads, managing
change in caseload volume and type and supporting probation staff with complex
and/or high workloads. In particular we will look for evidence of how changes to
caseloads and workload effect outcomes.
REAs are a form of Systematic Review, but are undertaken over a shorter period
than a full review – approximately 3 months, rather than 12 months. REAs and
Systematic Reviews systematically search for, evaluate and synthesise evidence
about a specific intervention. Where possible, they include a statistical meta-
analysis of individual studies, in order to provide a clear indication of the likely
impact (effect size) of the intervention. The evidence which is eligible for synthesis in
an REA is that which is trustworthy, its design being capable of supporting logical
and, if possible, statistical inference about the causes of observed effects.
We first set out the context for the REA before describing the methodology
adopted. We then set out findings from the REA and conclude with a discussion of
these findings, including reference to wider debates about caseloads in compara-
ble public services.
The question of identifying optimum caseloads and workloads for probation staff
has, of course, always been a thorny one as governments have consistently sought
to reconcile the competing aims of maximum effectiveness and value for public
money. McWilliams (1966) sought to attribute the decreasing proportion of pro-
bation orders which were successfully completed in London in the 1950s and 60s to
an increase in average caseloads. Regrettably, the study is methodologically weak
and seeks to correlate a 10 percentage point improvement in completion rate
between 1959 and 1960 with a fall in average male officer caseloads from 60 to
50 cases in the same year. However, there is insufficient information provided to
assess the validity of this claim which could be attributable to a number of other
reasons or unreliable data. More methodologically rigorous was the Intensive
Matched Probation and After-Care Treatment programme known as IMPACT
(Folkard et al., 1976) probationers were randomly assigned to normal or ‘intensive’
Fox et al.

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