A new study by UC Berkeley reveals that empathy training for parole and probation officers leads to decreased recidivism. Work pressures and biases can adversely impact the relationship between parole officers and their clients. This can cause offenders to end up back in prison, which perpetuates the cycle.

However, the positive psychology intervention created by UC Berkeley found that empathy training makes a difference. In fact, it helped to deepen the emotional connection between the officers and their clients, which the study found may deter recidivism.

About the Berkeley Study

The findings were published on March 29, 2021, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The results show, on average, a 13% decrease in recidivism among the clients of supervision officers who participated in the study.

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“If an officer received this empathic training, real-world behavioral outcomes changed for the people they supervised, who, in turn, were less likely to go back to jail,” said study lead and senior author Jason Okonofua, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. Co-authors of the study include Kimia Saadatian, Joseph Ocampo, Michael Ruiz, and Perfecta Delgado Oxholm, all from UC Berkeley.

The findings are noteworthy since efforts are currently ongoing to reduce jail populations during the pandemic. Not to mention, the U.S. criminal justice system has one of the highest recidivism rates in the world. In fact, around two-thirds of incarcerated people are rearrested within three years of their release. Besides that, 50% end up behind bars again.

Okonofua, who has helped mediate relationships between teachers and students to ensure biases don’t affect teachers’ disciplinary actions, says this:

“The combination of COVID-19 and ongoing criminal justice reforms are diverting more people away from incarceration and toward probation or parole, which is why we need to develop scalable ways to keep pace with this change.”

How they conducted the study on empathy training

A correctional department in a large East Coast city invited the UC Berkeley team to conduct the study. Okonofua and several of his graduate students wanted to find out if empathy training  for supervision officers would lower recidivism.

Duties of probation and parole officers include keeping tabs on clients’ whereabouts and making sure they attend court hearings. In addition, they ensure clients take necessary drug tests and provide resources to help prevent future arrests. They also make sure they don’t violate their parole.

For the study, researchers surveyed over 200 parole and probation officers who oversee over 20,000 people. The offenders’ crimes range from violent crimes to petty theft. Combining theirs and other scholars’ expertise, researchers created and administered a 30-minute online empathy survey.

The survey asked questions about the following:

  • officers’ job motivation;
  • biases, and;
  • opinions on relationships and responsibilities.

To understand the parole officers’ motivations and encourage empathy, the survey asked what they found fulfilling about their job. One respondent said, “When I run across those guys, and they’re doing well, I’m like, ‘Awesome!’” Others said that the most important aspect of their job is advocating for people in need.

The survey also addressed biases, including assumptions that people of certain backgrounds have a higher risk of committing crimes. It talked about shocking cases where probation or parole officers took advantage of their power and abused clients. In addition, the survey asked the officers to rate how much responsibility they feel for their colleagues’ transgressions. Most of them said they had no responsibility for their peers’ misbehavior.

Ten months after administering the survey, researchers found that the empathy training caused recidivism to drop 13%. Of course, this only included offenders whose parole and probation officers took part in the study. Research protocols don’t allow for the disclosure of the agency or its location.

The study didn’t include specifics on what prevented clients from committing further crimes following the officers’ empathy training. However, the study results suggest that the parole officers may have acted more empathetic toward their clients. The new relationship dynamics could’ve caused a reduction in recidivism as clients felt they had more support and understanding.

“The officer is in a position of power to influence if it’s going to be an empathic or punitive relationship in ways that the person on parole or probation is not,” Okonofua said. “As our study shows, the relationship between probation and parole officers and the people they supervise plays a pivotal role and can lead to positive outcomes, if efforts to be more understanding are taken into consideration.”

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How empathy and better treatment programs can prevent people from reoffending

Empathy can help mitigate the challenges of life and create stronger bonds between people. Everyone deserves empathy, but previously incarcerated people are particularly vulnerable, especially as they readjust to society. Many of them have trouble securing employment or reconnecting with loved ones after their release, which can trigger recidivism.

The U.S. has the highest prison population of any country, with 655 prisoners per 100,000 of the national population.  The United States incarcerated around 2.12 million people in 2020. Prisons in the U.S. are overcrowded and often can’t accommodate people with special medical needs. While the country places great emphasis on getting criminals off the streets, it falls short on preventing people from reoffending.

The U.S. Department of Justice lists several evidence-based rehabilitation strategies to reduce recidivism and help people get their lives back.

  • Evaluate each criminals’ needs and background to ensure effective programs and treatments on an individual basis.
  • Having “school districts” within the federal prison system.
  • Encourage inmates to develop marketable job skills.
  • Prioritize mental health treatment for inmates.
  • Making sure inmates receive substance abuse treatment if necessary.

Final Thoughts: A study proves that empathy training can reduce inmates chances of reoffending

A groundbreaking UC Berkeley study reveals that empathy training for parole officers can reduce recidivism. They believe that the officers’ increased empathy for clients led to a 13% decrease in repeat offenses. Hopefully, this study will encourage more interventions to strengthen relationships between parole officers and their clients.

Indeed, those who served time for past mistakes deserve understanding and support. If parole officers can see their clients as people rather than just cases, it can make a huge difference.