How do you keep a person on probation or parole from going to prison? Incentives and sanctions are the two main options, and one University of Wyoming criminal justice professor is finding what works best.
UW professor Eric Wodahl has spent his university career figuring out the best ways to integrate people on parole or probation back into their communities and out of jail or prison.
“What I’ve focused most of my attention on is prisoner re-entry — understanding how prisoners leave prison and trying to reintegrate back in the community and some of the challenges they face,” he said. “I like to focus more on rural context.”
There are two main tools probation and parole officers can use to stop re-offenders — punishment or reward. Wodahl’s research is trying to determine if one is better than the other.
“What we’re finding is, there really aren’t any overarching trends,” he said. “It really depends on the individual.”
Tom Mowen, another criminal justice professor, is working with Wodahl to figure out what has the best success rates.
“Right now, we’re looking at how individuals assess different incentives while they’re on probation,” he said.
Incentives can vary widely, Wodahl said, ranging from verbal praise from a judge to reduced supervision time. He recently took a trip to Colorado to speak with and poll people on probation and parole, asking what incentives would be most effective.
“Not surprisingly, the verbal praise was at the bottom of the list,” Wodahl said. “Monetary incentives, such as a $50 gift card, were higher on the list. Removing time from supervision or reducing the number of reports were at the top. However, all of them were deemed fairly effective, even verbal praise.”
While the list showed some trends, they varied widely between sexes and people with different prison sentences, Mowen said.
“There are variations for different things between men and women and others based on the time of offense,” he said. “A person on probation for a violent offense might prefer something different than other prisoners.”
Sanctions sit at the other end of the spectrum. Wodahl said punishments could also persuade people from re-offending. One fairly common punishment was despised by more people than other sanctions — community service.
“Some people would rather go to jail for a short period of time than do community service,” he said. “Sometimes it’s easier — they get to sit around and watch TV all day.”
Other people research the same areas as Wodahl but with a greater emphasis on urban integration. Wodahl is focusing more on how incentives or sanctions affect people on probation in rural areas, which are much more common in Wyoming, he said.
“It’s different in less populated areas,” he said. “The acquaintance level is high — a lot of people know each other. This can change what is effective and what isn’t.”
After being a parole and probation officer in various forms for about 10 years, Wodahl knows his research can lead to real effects for other officers and prisoners.
“I focus on practical, evidence-based research that can be important to people in the field,” he said. “I wish I had this information when I was an officer.”