The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Examinig the Relationship Between Probation Officers and Probationers With Serious Mental Illnesses in Specialized and Standard Programs

Saturday, January 18, 2014: 3:00 PM
HBG Convention Center, Room 002B River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Matthew Epperson, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Julian Thompson, MA, Doctoral Student, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Soyeon Kim, Doctoral Student, Loyola University, Chicago, Chicago, IL
Arthur J. Lurigio, PhD, Associate Dean for Faculty, Loyola University, Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background: Persons with serious mental illness (SMI) are overrepresented in the U.S. criminal justice system, and an estimated 500,000 persons with SMI are currently on probation.  Probation serves as a “second chance” or alternative to incarceration, and success or failure on probation for people with SMI means the difference between community life and falling deeper into the criminal justice system.  Probation officers who supervise probationers with SMI face a challenging task of facilitating rehabilitative services and promoting public safety.  Only recently has the officer/probationer relationship been examined within the context of specialized mental health probation programs, where officers have reduced caseloads and are trained on issues of mental illness and relational skills in order to help probationers with SMI achieve therapeutic outcomes.  A handful of studies have found that specialized probation officers perceive a more therapeutic and caring relationship with their clients compared to standard probation officers, who manage a larger, mixed caseload.  The quality of this relationship has also been linked to successful probation outcomes.   However, research that focuses on how probationers with SMI perceive their relationship with specialized vs. standard probation officers is needed. 

Methods: We recruited probationers with SMI from two specialized (mental health court and specialized mental health probation) and one standard probation program in a large Midwestern city.  Participants completed a demographic survey and the Dual-Role relationship Inventory, Revised (DRI-R), a 30-item survey assessing various aspects of the probationer/probation officer relationship.  Differences in DRI-R total scores and three subscales (caring-fairness, toughness, and trust) were examined using one-way ANOVA.  Linear regression was employed to test the relationship between supervision type and DRI-R total score and subscales, controlling for participant age, gender, race/ethnicity, and length of time on probation. 

Results:  One hundred probationers with SMI agreed to participate (Mental Health Probation: n=38; Mental Health Court: n=31; Standard Probation: n=31). Mean DRI-R total scores were high across supervision types (Mental Health Court: 185.5, SD=29.27; Mental Health Probation: 180.4, SD=35.28; Standard Probation: 170.3, SD=41.7), indicating a fairly positive relationship with probation officers.  One-way ANOVA results show no significant differences across the three programs in total DRI-R score (F (2.97) = 1.46, p=.237) or for any subscale.  Multivariate linear regression results also revealed a non-significant relationship between supervision type and DRI-R total score (β=.168, p=.095) and the following subscale scores:  Trust (β=-.129, p=.20); Toughness (β=-.163, p=.10); and Caring/Fairness (β=-.166, p=.10).

Conclusions:  Findings contradicted our hypothesis that probationers with SMI from specialized programs would report a more balanced, positive relationship with their probation officer compared to those on standard probation.  It is important to better understand how standard probation officers in our study were able to achieve high quality dual-role relationships with their clients with SMI, in the midst of extremely large and challenging caseloads.  The findings also question whether specialized programs are achieving their stated goals of providing an individualized, rehabilitative approach to probation.  The specialized probation programs in this study report higher average caseloads than what is recommended for ideal specialized supervision, which may help to explain the findings.