The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Supervising Probationers with Serious Mental Illnesses: Perspectives From Probation Officers in Specialized and Standard Probation Models

Friday, January 18, 2013: 10:30 AM
Executive Center 2A (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Matthew Epperson, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Kelli Canada, PhD, LCSW, Assistant Professor, University of Missouri-Columbia, Columbia, MO
Arthur J. Lurigio, PhD, Professor, Loyola University, Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background: An estimated half million adult probationers in the U.S. struggle with serious mental illnesses (SMI).  Probationers with SMI are more likely to receive violations, be terminated from probation unsatisfactorily, and be re-incarcerated compared to probationers without SMI.  Mental health court (MHC) and specialized probation have emerged as the two most prevalent enhanced models to address the complex needs of probationers with SMI.  These programs have developed largely in isolation of each other, and research on MHC and specialized probation has been siloed as well.  At the same time, persons with SMI continue to land in standard probation units, where standard probation officers have been forced to adapt and augment their approaches to supervision for this population.

Despite the fact that these three programs share a common struggle of how to best supervise probationers with SMI, little to no research has compared probation officer roles, functions and approaches to supervision.  This study seeks to address this gap in the knowledge base by conducting comparative qualitative analyses of probation officers and staff from MHC, specialized probation, and standard probation.  The study highlights unique strengths and challenges experienced by probation officers in specialized and standard programs and will suggest approaches that may improve each of the three probation models.

Method: Qualitative methods are used to examine the differences and similarities between the practices of probation officers who supervise individuals with SMI.  Thirty probation officers and staff from MHC, specialized probation, and standard probation in a large urban county took part in a 60-minute semi-structured interview.  Participants were asked about their attitudes and experiences in working with probationers with SMI, approaches to coordinating services, and monitoring adherence.  Data were analyzed using the grounded dimensional analysis strategy for grounded theory studies developed by Schatzman.    

Results: Based on the qualitative analyses, probation officers from MHC, specialized probation, and standard probation display both areas of commonality and areas of distinction in supervising probationers with SMI.  Officers in MHC and specialized probation tend to subscribe to the criminalization explanation for why persons with SMI are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, and supervision strategies center largely on connection and monitoring of adherence to mental health treatment.  In contrast, standard probation officers have varying experience and training regarding mental illness, and their supervision tends to focus on an array of criminogenic risks in addition to mental illness, such as substance abuse and criminal thinking patterns.  MHC probation officers appear to benefit greatly from a team approach, which provides resources and information on coordinating services; specialized and standard probation officers work greatly in isolation and with varying degrees of perceived access to resources for their probationers.   

Conclusions: The findings have implications for improving supervision of probationers with SMI within both specialized and standard models.  Officers in specialized programs may benefit from a broader approach to supervision, which includes a range of criminogenic risks.  Specialized and standard probation officers would benefit from efforts that bring together resources and information on services and supervision approaches to probationers with SMI.