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date: 21 April 2018

Intensive Supervision Probation

Summary and Keywords

Intensive Supervision Probation (ISP) is a form of community supervision that employs smaller caseloads, more frequent contacts, and a variety of other mechanisms to increase the level of surveillance and control for those on criminal probation. While this approach has seen successive waves of research interest, the evidence on its effectiveness seems relatively disappointing. Most existing studies have shown that ISP produces very little reduction in recidivism, while also being more costly to deliver. In addition, ISP’s surveillance mechanisms result in more frequent detection of technical violations, leading to a greater use of incarceration. Despite these disappointing findings, however, there is some potential for ISP to be used in a positive way. Recent developments in assessing both the risk of offending and the criminogenic needs of individual probationers, combined with shifts in the philosophical foundations of community supervision, suggest that ISP could prove to be a useful and productive tool when targeted at the most advantageous population of criminal offenders.

Keywords: probation, parole, community supervision, intensive supervision probation, risk assessment, needs assessment, responsivity

Community correctional supervision is an approach to criminal sanctioning that allows offenders to remain under the supervision and authority of a correctional agency, while avoiding the need for incarceration in a prison or jail. This form of sanctioning includes offenders who have been placed on either probation or parole, as well as other, less common measures. These types of sanctions have been traditionally reserved for less serious offenders, although an expansion in the overall prison population—coupled with policies designed to encourage diversion away from incarceration—have increased reliance on community supervision over the past several decades.

Intensive Supervision Probation (ISP)1 is a particular form of community supervision designed specifically for the management of higher-risk offenders. ISP efforts have existed in many different forms, within many different jurisdictions, under many different acronyms, and have waxed and waned in popularity at different times. But the rationale and day-to-day functioning of these efforts has remained fairly consistent. When community supervision offenders are placed into an ISP caseload, the typical level of supervision is (at least by design) dramatically increased by assigning far more of an agency’s resources—including officer time, supervisory visits, drug tests, assessments for treatment placements, and other services—than are typically employed for other offenders.

The Practical Rationale and Theoretical Basis for ISP

Agencies that employ ISP generally do so with the hope that it will both save money and enhance public safety. But beyond these strategic objectives, ISP usually serves a number of complimentary goals. It places offenders under increased scrutiny, with the aim of detecting any new problems or illegal behavior sooner than would occur under standard levels of supervision. This increased risk of detection serves both as a specific deterrent and a mechanism for initiating a correctional response (either punitive or therapeutic) when problems arise. Increased resources for case management also can allow officers to develop far more knowledge about the offenders in their caseloads, derived from visits to their homes and workplaces, contact with family members, and better monitoring of the offenders’ progress in any therapeutic programming.

Perhaps the most discussed and well-recognized goal of ISP is punishment. ISP is simply far more burdensome for the offenders, requiring an increased amount of effort on their part to meet the manifold conditions of their supervision. In this sense, it is more retributive than ordinary community supervision and serves as a penalty that is onerous enough to be seen as an acceptable alternative (or even an analog) to incarceration. This is especially significant for more serious offenders on probation, as it allows a further aspect of supervision (namely, intensity) to be adapted to fit the individual, in addition to the length of supervision. In essence, ISP produces a form of intermediate punishment that exists somewhere between the usual so-called soft option of community supervision and the expensive alternative of full-time incarceration.

Because of these roots as a more punitive form of probation, ISP has traditionally been delivered in a manner that is more focused on enforcement, surveillance, and control than on treatment or the provision of targeted services to improve offenders’ life chances (Gill, 2014). But this focus has shifted over time, with agencies gradually recognizing that ISP also can provide an opportunity to deliver therapy and treatment with greater frequency and fidelity than would be the case for offenders who are seen less often and monitored far less stringently. In its more recent incarnations, ISP programs have leveraged the increased knowledge and more frequent contacts that officers have with their offenders to allow more accurate and detailed assessments of the risks and needs that each individual offender presents. This information then can be used to better tailor both the nature of supervision and the approach to treatment to the individualized circumstances presented by each unique offender.

While the practical goals of ISP spread over a fairly wide spectrum, the theoretical support for these efforts is much less clear. Many ISP efforts have been initiated for purely practical reasons, such as the need to manage caseload sizes and offenders of differing levels of risk, and the theoretical drivers of any change in offender behavior often have been applied only as afterthoughts. Nevertheless, the techniques applied by most of these programs are congruent with a number of different criminological theories. These theories include specific deterrence, incapacitation, formal social control, and (to a lesser extent) informal social control (Gill, 2014).

Specific deterrence could be applied in three different ways. First, ISP clearly signals to offenders that they have been singled out for a much more detailed and watchful form of supervision. As such, this form of supervision demonstrates that the system is devoting specific resources to control their specific behavior. Second, ISP should increase the certainty of detection when offenders violate their conditions of probation, along with enhancing the speed at which additional punishment can be delivered to the offenders on these occasions. This is perhaps especially true in the area of substance abuse, since ISP efforts typically employ more frequent (and often random) drug screening of the offenders (Paparozzi & Gendreau, 2005; Hawken & Kleiman, 2009; Hawken et al., 2016).

Finally, ISP offenders usually are given very little leeway when they violate the terms of their supervision. While all offenders on probation face the threat of incarceration if their access to community supervision is revoked due to either noncompliance with the rules of supervision or the commission of new criminal offenses, ISP programs typically resort to such action much sooner than traditional probation. Offenders on ISP essentially face a Sword of Damocles that can be dropped at any time to increase the severity of their punishment (Neyroud & Slothower, 2015). Because they are monitored so closely, and because there is little tolerance for any misbehavior, ISP offenders face far more rapid punishment than is typical for offenders under community supervision.

Incapacitation also can serve as an indirect theoretical driver in ISP programs. As described previously, this form of supervision is designed to apply increased surveillance and to detect wrongdoing relatively quickly. Most of the ISP efforts reviewed in the literature also respond to misconduct—often quite rapidly—by sending the offenders to incarceration for a period of time. In some ways, a primary goal of many ISP programs is to quickly identify those who are unable to adhere to its restrictions and then incarcerate them so they are incapable of offending again until their sentence is complete. This approach to offender management is in line with suggestions that ISP serves as a proxy sanction for incarceration; slight misbehaviors are sufficient to justify the return of those individuals to full custody in order to protect the public.

The structural goals of community supervision, which is designed to facilitate community reintegration, apply to those probationers under ISP as well. ISP clearly provides formal social control in the form of frequent contacts with probation officers and accompanying reminders concerning the need to obey the law. Yet it may also promote a form of informal social control at the same time. This informal element is applied by allowing the offenders to remain in the community, where they can be exposed to conventional family members who do not wish to see them become incarcerated, to conventional peers who may encourage them to stop offending, and to other prosocial cultural and religious institutions (Taxman, 2004).

While ISP can employ these theoretical drivers to increase compliance and decrease new criminal offending, other forces within criminological theory suggest that it also has a certain potential to backfire and promote further misbehavior. Labeling theory, for example, suggests that the same signal that ISP sends to promote deterrence—that the offender is being specifically singled out for a more intense form of community supervision—also can indicate to the offender that she or he presents a greater risk than other probationers and is more prone to reoffend. In addition, ISP clients are allowed to remain in the same communities where they committed their original offenses in the first place. While contact with conventional others in this community may promote informal social control, this arrangement also continues to expose these offenders to any deviant peers who encourage such offending, allowing offenders to persist in the same social structure and environment that has led to offending in the past (Kirk, 2009).

Finally, the more frequent contacts required by ISP, especially within the agency office environment, can bring offenders into more frequent contact with one another. Offenders who are familiar with one another from prior criminal involvements or periods of incarceration can reconnect easily in long security lines, elevators, urinalysis collection labs, and waiting rooms, presenting a wealth of opportunities for a form of deviant peer contagion (Dishion & Dodge, 2005; Barnes et al., 2010) to take place. Thus, some of the very features of ISP that are thought to promote increase compliance with the law also could produce counterproductive conditions. It is, therefore, important to recognize exactly what features are most commonly employed within ISP programs and how they are directed at the offenders in these caseloads.

The Practical Mechanisms of Delivering ISP

Intensive supervision has been applied to many different kinds of offenders, including those who are sentenced directly to community supervision but who require closer surveillance, those who are diverted from what would have been a term of incarceration otherwise, and those who are departing from incarceration and are thought to need a more rigorous approach to supervision as they readjust to life in the community. Despite this diversity, some core mechanisms seem to be present in the vast majority of ISP programs. Other techniques, meanwhile, have emerged only recently to present new ways of applying a more intensive form of supervision. A list of the potential features of an ISP program include the following:

  • Reduced caseloads. Nearly every ISP effort has started with the aim to reduce the number of offenders being supervised by individual officers. Reduced caseloads allow the officers more time to apply the enhanced degree of supervision needed to make the program function. Even this basic goal, however, has seen mixed results. In some agencies, the fixed (or even shrinking) size of the workforce, an increase in the incoming flow of offenders, or some combination of these factors has forced ISP caseloads to climb well above their targeted levels. This problem seems especially acute when an agency seeks only to decrease ISP caseloads, without a corresponding increase in the caseload sizes for those officers who supervise other kinds of offenders. Moreover, even when caseloads are successfully reduced, they have not always led to the desired changes in officer behavior. Agencies that have long operated with heavily standardized methods of case management sometimes have found it difficult to convince officers to apply new and differing approaches within their smaller ISP caseloads (Byrne, 1986; Lurigio & Petersilia, 1992). While reduced caseload sizes are likely a necessary starting point for ISP, they are not sufficient to produce more intensive supervision on their own.

  • Increased office visits. Along with reduced caseloads, nearly every ISP program in the literature has increased the frequency of offender office visits (Petersilia & Turner, 1990). Community supervision agencies are usually placed in a small number of central locations and rely heavily on the ability of each officer to work with multiple offenders in a relatively short period of time. Under ISP, the logic of this workflow is often simply amplified. Because officers dealing with ISP clients have smaller caseloads, they are able to bring their offenders into the office far more frequently (often weekly) than those who are tasked with larger, traditional caseloads. As with reduced caseload sizes, however, these more frequent visits are far from sufficient to increase the intensity of supervision by themselves. A great deal depends on what actually transpires during these office visits and whether ISP officers use this additional contact to do something beyond what is applied to those offenders who are on conventional supervision. For example, such an approach may include motivational interviewing (MI) techniques, designed to assist offenders with a high risk of recidivism to overcome potential factors contributing to their failure (McMurran, 2009). The exact supervision techniques and protocols for ISP offenders, however, can vary enormously from agency to agency.

  • Home and other out-of-office visits. Many ISP programs feature officer visits to the offenders’ homes, schools, and places of employment. This element of ISP, however, can present substantial logistical challenges. As noted previously, many probation agencies rely very heavily on offender office visits. Many lack sufficient access to official vehicles to allow any sizable number of officers to travel to outside locations. These agencies also are often located in urban environments, where traffic can add significant time to every journey. Officers may spend far more time travelling to these field visits than they spend conducting them. When officers leave their secure office environments, they also necessarily face additional risks to their personal safety. These visits thus often require officers to travel in pairs, which further reduces efficiency. In some jurisdictions, traditionally unarmed probation officers have been required to carry firearms and other defensive weapons to support these visits, vastly increasing the training, equipment, and liability costs for ISP programs. Other efforts have required probation officers to be accompanied by the police during these times, which can add further budgetary and coordination challenges.

  • Drug and alcohol screening. Another frequent mechanism in ISP efforts is more frequent testing for drug and alcohol use. Some locations have used a largely randomized system for determining when offenders must submit a sample for urinalysis, requiring them to report for unannounced testing even when they were not already scheduled for an office visit (e.g., Hawken & Kleiman, 2009). Other agencies, meanwhile, have relied upon an unvarying and consistent testing regime at every (or nearly every) office visit (Erwin & Bennett, 1987; Petersilia & Turner, 1993; Hyatt & Barnes, 2014). While frequent testing should increase the rate of detection, this aspect of ISP is not without difficulty. Urinalysis can require substantial staff, of both genders, to monitor collection, ensure proper labelling, and prevent the adulteration of samples. Agencies also may face logistical challenges in shipping these samples for laboratory testing, along with substantial delays in receiving the results. The use of instant testing kits, meanwhile, can require agency staff to handle bodily fluids physically and undergo additional training to deal with any associated risks. Finally, the beginning of an ISP program can increase the volume of testing being conducted suddenly, far above what the agency experienced in the past. Although the financial costs of individual tests may be reasonably low, they can multiply quickly when so many additional tests become necessary.

  • Employment. While most of the earliest reported ISP programs did not feature such a requirement, the majority of reported efforts since the 1980s have required that offenders remain either employed or in school while they are under intensive supervision (Erwin & Bennett, 1987; Petersilia & Turner, 1990, 1993). Verifying such employment, however, sometimes can present a challenge. Offenders may not be able to obtain traditional jobs that provide some kind of verifiable payment record, and instead may work in “off-the-books” arrangements or on an “as-needed” basis that is rather inconsistent (Petersilia & Turner, 1993). Other offenders may experience great difficulty in securing any form of employment, leaving them unable to comply with this requirement directly.

  • Electronic monitoring. A relatively recent addition to ISP has been electronic monitoring, which has been applied to participants—sometimes on a voluntary basis—by various programs in the United Kingdom (Ellis, Pamment, & Lewis, 2009) and the United States (McCarthy, 1987; Renzema & Mayo-Wilson, 2005). Use of this method, however, is highly dependent on local laws, sentencing practices, and the availability of financing for the purchase and monitoring of these devices. In an ISP context, older radio-frequency forms of electronic monitoring—which essentially require an offender to stay within a given range of a fixed base station—may have only a limited application, particularly in jurisdictions where such restrictions must be applied by the court at sentencing. Rather than being integrated with ISP itself, this older form of monitoring often serves more as an additional sanction that is applied on top of community supervision. But more modern devices, enabled with global positioning system (GPS) capabilities, could be employed to enhance the surveillance of ISP offenders, offering a number of ways of tracking their movements, providing new lines of enquiry concerning their whereabouts, and even restricting offenders from entering certain locations that could be associated with further offending.

  • Treatment. Another relatively recent addition to ISP has been the application of treatment efforts that run alongside the more stringent supervision requirements. Such efforts have been comparatively rare, and treatment has been—at best—an inconsistent part of intensive supervision that is highly dependent on location and program availability. Yet several ISP efforts, especially those limited to drug-involved offenders, have mandated that offenders participate in treatment (Petersilia & Turner, 1990). In some ways, a marriage between ISP and treatment seems obvious. Many forms of therapeutic programming can be delivered only when the offender is physically present on a quite frequent basis, and yet many traditional forms of community supervision do not require the offender to report to a specific location at anywhere close to the frequency needed to support such therapies. Offenders on ISP, who usually are required to attend in-person meetings with officers on a weekly (or even more frequent) basis, present a crucial opportunity to deliver these kinds of rigorous treatment (Hyatt & Barnes, 2014). Despite the obvious utility of applying treatment to this population of probationers, however, many ISP programs up through the 1980s focused almost exclusively on the punitive and surveillance aspects of supervision and provided little evidence of any attempt to integrate treatment into these efforts (Petersilia & Turner, 1990; Gill, 2014). Where treatment efforts were integrated with ISP, there was often little tracking to ensure that these interventions were delivered any more intensively than would have been experienced in an untreated control group (Paparozzi & Gendreau, 2005). Moreover, ISP offenders often can prove difficult to treat while under community supervision, regardless of their frequently scheduled office visits. For example, one study that attempted to provide cognitive-behavioral therapy to offenders who were also on intensive supervision encountered substantial problems in treatment delivery, with only 55% of the targeted offenders attending even 1 of the intended 14 therapy sessions, and only 35% graduating from the full treatment program. The high-risk offenders who were targeted in this particular study were simply too criminally active and too deeply involved with the criminal justice system to be available on any consistent basis for therapeutic programming (Barnes, Hyatt, & Sherman, 2016). Even though ISP offenders appear to provide ample opportunities for treatment, therefore, these efforts may need to be tailored for delivery to such a complex and highly disordered population of probationers.

  • Police-probation partnerships. Probation and parole agencies nearly always face staffing challenges, and (as described earlier) often have only a limited capacity to visit and work with offenders outside their central office environment. Police departments, meanwhile, often deliver a large amount of patrol coverage to the same neighborhoods where ISP clients live their lives, but they may not have any detailed knowledge about which residents are under some form of community supervision. A functional partnership between these police and probation agencies, therefore, can be enormously beneficial to both sides. Such partnerships may take a very basic form, where only data are exchanged (perhaps in only one direction) so that police officers can locate and identify known probationers while on patrol (Martin & Sherman, 1986). Alternatively, they can become much more involved, with probation officers and police officers patrolling these areas alongside one another. This kind of active cooperation can be especially beneficial in jurisdictions where probation officers are granted the ability to conduct warrantless searches of offenders who are under their agency’s supervision (Worrall & Gaines, 2006). These arrangements also can be used as an element of focused deterrence among those who are believed to be criminally active in specific neighborhoods (Kennedy, 1996). Because such offenders are often already under some form of community supervision, these programs can use the threat of revocation and near-instant incarceration as a means of encouraging them to control not only their own illegal behavior, but even the behavior of any criminal gangs that they belong to (Braga, 2008; Braga & Weisburd, 2011).

  • Zero-tolerance policies. A final, very common, feature of ISP programs is some form of “zero-tolerance” policy toward any misbehavior. At the very least, new offenders coming into ISP are typically warned that they will be given very little leeway for any kind of misconduct, which could include things as minor as being late for an office visit or failing to be present for a prescheduled home visit. In practice, however, the actual application of these policies varies greatly from agency to agency, and much appears to depend on the options available to probation officers when misconduct is discovered. In some jurisdictions, for example, the only option may be to formally arrest offenders for probation violations, place them into incarceration, and await a full judicial hearing to determine whether their probation will be revoked. This process can be long and involved, require a great deal of documentation by probation officers, increase the local jail population, and take up a great deal of expensive court time. Moreover, if the reason for the violation is relatively minor, the outcome of the final judicial hearing is unlikely to result in any substantive punishment for an offender. A full revocation of probation, which would result in the offender being sentenced to a new, and possibly longer, term of correctional supervision, may simply be too expensive and too draconian a remedy for minor violations. As a result, officers may wait until their offenders build up an indeterminate number of violations before they become willing to invoke a full violation of probation (Clear & Hardyman, 1990; Hawken & Kleiman, 2009; Hawken et al., 2016). In other jurisdictions, the system may be able to apply less severe reactions to probationer misconduct, allowing some relatively minor punishment to be applied while not requiring a complete revocation. These graduated sanctions can include a more frequent reporting or drug testing schedule or brief periods of incarceration amounting to only a few days.

Clearly, there are many different mechanisms that can be combined in any given ISP program, and there may be additional features of some programs that have gone unmentioned here (Gill, 2014; Petersilia & Turner, 1993). In some ways, the diversity of options in constructing an ISP program is one of its crucial strengths, as it allows each individual jurisdiction to design a program that best meets the demands and capabilities of the local criminal justice system. In scientific terms, however, this vastly varying mix of program elements presents a real challenge to distilling the overall effects of ISP. Nearly every program that has been evaluated within the literature is somewhat unique and at least partially different from all the others. Moreover, the exact mix of program elements has shifted somewhat over time, meaning that today’s programs often employ very different mechanics compared to those from earlier decades. It is, therefore, important to understand the history of intensive supervision and to recognize how its popularity has ebbed and flowed as research evidence has been accumulated over the last 50 years.

Eras and Evidence on ISP

Intensive supervision first surfaced in the 1960s, albeit in a form that is noticeably different from those efforts that emerged later. These programs were not necessarily aimed at any particular population of offenders (such as those who presented the greatest risk of reoffending); instead, they focused on probationers in general. In fact, these early efforts were not so much a coordinated endeavor to reduce offending as a series of experimental tests into varying caseload sizes to determine if probation agencies could be managed more efficiently. In essence, the goal of these earliest programs was to figure out whether reduced caseloads might be so effective at controlling offender misconduct that the benefits would outweigh their substantial financial burdens (Petersilia & Turner, 1990).

The results from this era largely showed that any benefits of ISP were vanishingly small, and that the costs were even larger than anticipated. In a pattern that would repeat itself several times over the decades, there was little evidence of reduced reoffending when offenders were placed into smaller caseloads, but this absence of benefit was combined with a much greater rate of probation violations being detected by the supervising officers (Clear & Hardyman, 1990). ISP offenders were violated much more frequently for technical violations of the rules of their supervision, such as missing appointments. Even though their rates of offending were largely unchanged, the increase in technical violations meant that these clients were incarcerated at a much higher rate and consumed far more criminal justice resources than they would have under less rigorous conditions. These studies, which were largely designed to determine the optimal caseload size, ultimately led most agencies to return to the practices that had existed in the past. ISP was widely regarded as a failure and more or less forgotten for the next 10–15 years (Gill, 2014).

One interesting aspect of these early efforts, however, was that there appeared to be little effort to use the additional officer time that stemmed from the reduced caseloads under ISP in any new or innovative ways. The focus was simply on increasing the amount and rate of officer-client contact. Officers with reduced caseloads were able to apply more time and effort to the offenders under their supervision, but they largely used these resources to do even more of what was already being done with other offenders, often with little or no direction about what approach they might employ instead (Clear & Hardyman, 1990). Because this era generally featured a correctional philosophy that was more rehabilitative and treatment oriented than what would come later, these early ISP programs often combined an increased number of probation officer contacts with a wider application of the therapeutic practices that were in use at that time (Petersilia & Turner, 1990). This rehabilitative focus sets these early programs somewhat apart from the more control-focused and surveillance oriented-programs that would arise in the early 1980s.

While ISP was largely regarded as a failed experiment during most of the 1970s, this era also witnessed a remarkably rapid shift in correctional philosophy. As crime rates continued to increase, the public mood shifted from the rehabilitative ideals of the past and began to focus on a much more deterrence-oriented, retributive, and at least partially incapacitative philosophy of punishment. Confidence in rehabilitative programming all but evaporated (Martinson, 1974), new sentencing policies resulted in rapidly increasing (and expensive) prison populations, and a new era of control-oriented and increasingly punitive techniques was ushered in at most (if not all) community supervision agencies (Greenberg & West, 2001).

In light of this philosophical shift, correctional decision-makers began to reconsider the potential role for ISP supervision. Growing prison populations required some form of relief valve, and ISP came to be seen as a method by which probation could be made nearly as onerous and controlling as incarceration (Travis & Lawrence, 2002; Gill, 2014). The result was a second wave of popularity for intensive supervision, beginning in the late 1970s and continuing through the early 1990s (Petersilia, 2003). This new form of ISP focused almost exclusively on surveillance, deterrence, a zero-tolerance attitude toward misconduct, and (in at least some locations) employment mandates (Petersilia & Turner, 1993). In addition to this shift in policy, the targeted population for these efforts was rather different than in the 1960s. ISP was seen as a means to divert offenders who otherwise would have been incarcerated away from the expense and detrimental impact of prison, and to supervise them in a manner that was far less costly than incarceration, while no less protective of public safety.

This second era of ISP was contemporaneously evaluated with an extensive series of randomized, controlled trials. One of the largest of these studies, conducted by the RAND Corporation, encompassed 14 separate research sites and an array of differing approaches to ISP (Petersilia & Turner, 1990, 1993). Intensive supervision was experimentally compared with regular “probation as usual” in 12 of these sites, while being compared to incarceration in the others. In nearly all the RAND research sites, the ISP offenders were placed into caseloads of just 25–30 offenders per officer, providing a sharp contrast with the control caseloads of approximately 100 or more. Contact frequency among the experimental offenders usually began with a weekly schedule, with the provision of a reduced frequency as time went on. In the control groups, meanwhile, contact frequency remained on the same monthly schedule that was standard at the time in most of the participating agencies (Petersilia & Turner, 1990, 1993).

While these experiments were much more rigorous, tightly controlled, and better able to establish a causal link than the early research from the 1960s, the results were astonishingly similar. ISP did little to reduce repeat offending when compared to the control conditions, producing little or no net benefit to public safety. At the same time, however, those offenders assigned to ISP experienced far more technical violations and returns to incarceration than those in the control groups, resulting in a substantial increase in financial cost (Petersilia & Turner, 1990, 1993).

Overall, these findings suggested that ISP often suffered from what some authors refer to as a “surveillance artifact” (Gill, 2014, p. 2588). Those who were supervised more closely were necessarily provided with far more opportunities to fail than those who were not, while also facing a much greater likelihood of having those failures detected (Gill, 2014, p. 2588). Perhaps if public safety had been successfully improved by these methods, these extra costs might be worth bearing. But given these findings (along with those from other ISP studies of this era), ISP seemed to offer little public safety benefit to offset its additional financial burden.

Despite these decidedly non-supportive findings, ISP never fully disappeared from the community correctional playbook. In part, it stayed in place—and even continued to be introduced anew—because the size and nature of the probation and parole population grew increasingly difficult to manage. Prison populations, at least in the United States, continued to rise in the 1990s, even as overall crime rates began to decline. Community correctional populations also continued to increase, in part because formerly incarcerated offenders began to be released and placed in these caseloads (Glaze & Palla, 2005). Faced with a need to “do something” with this wave of offenders—many of whom seemed to present an elevated risk to public safety—numerous agencies resorted to the most common and easily adjustable mechanisms available to manage their caseload distributions. A form of triage emerged in many jurisdictions, with the least risky offenders managed by officers who faced enlarged caseloads, and those with the highest risk placed into conditions that largely mirrored the ISP practices of the past (Pearson, 1988; DeMichele, 2007; Cuddeback, Gayman, & Bradley-Engen, 2010; Rosay & Begich, 2010).

Two emerging trends soon combined to usher in a third wave of support for the use of ISP, beginning in the late 1990s and continuing to the present day. The first of these trends centers around the continued improvement in assessment and prediction technology. A seemingly limitless array of different methods and proprietary tools allows today’s agencies to anticipate much more accurately which offenders pose the greatest risk to public safety, while also allowing them to identify the specific criminogenic needs that each individual client presents.

Assessments of offender risk have existed for nearly a century (Harcourt, 2008). The earliest forms of risk assessment employed actuarial methods that predominantly relied on static factors. These data includes criminal history and many demographic characteristics (i.e., gender, race) that do not change over time and can be used in a variety of statistical models to predict future conduct. Traditionally, these models relied upon various regression techniques, which may present challenges in both accuracy and interpretation (Bonta, 2002; Andrews, Bonta, & Wormith, 2006). More recently, modern machine learning algorithms have been employed in some jurisdictions to predict which offenders will commit new serious crimes while on community supervision (Berk, 2012; Barnes & Hyatt, 2012). With accurate risk information in hand, regardless of the underlying methodology, agencies now are better able to preserve resources by reducing the supervision intensity for the least dangerous offenders (Jalbert, Rhodes, & Flygare, 2010; Barnes, Hyatt, Ahlman, & Kent, 2012), while reserving the additional efforts and costs of ISP for those offenders who present the highest risk of serious reoffending.

Alongside these more accurate assessments of risk have been continued refinements in the methods used to identify the ISP population by assessing the unique criminogenic needs presented by each offender. These assessment methods are often not limited to the same static factors that typically have been employed in forecasting risk; they also can use dynamic measures, or clinical assessments that change over time. These measures of conduct—including educational attainment, drug abuse status, employment, and housing—can be used to identify and predict the specific needs of the individual that are associated with their continued criminal behavior (Bonta, Andrews, & Wormith, 2006). Addressing these needs through treatment or other programming, therefore, should encourage or facilitate reduced recidivism.

While these improvements in both risk and needs assessment are one reason for a renewed interest in ISP, they also provide a crucial foundation for a second (and perhaps even more important) trend that has emerged to support this approach to community supervision. This philosophy has been presented under a few different banners, including Principles of Effective Intervention (PEI) (Andrews, Bonta, & Hogue, 1990) and risk-needs-responsivity (RNR) (Ogloff & Davis, 2004; Taxman, Thanner, & Weisburd, 2006; Bonta & Andrews, 2007), but at its core, it encompasses a single, rather simple concept—that higher levels of supervision (such as ISP) and different forms of treatment will be most effective when access to them is restricted to those offenders who are best suited to respond to them. For offenders at a high risk of recidivism, this principle suggests that the optimal supervision will provide a mix of control and treatment that is both evidence-based and individualized.

Clearly, this kind of targeted programming is possible only when accompanied by accurate and reliable methods to assess which offenders represent the best fit for different approaches. But even more important, the principles presented within PEI and RNR suggest that prior waves of research into intensive supervision may have produced such disappointing results because this approach was incorrectly targeted at the wrong kinds of offenders. An assessment of this possibility must take into account how ISP was targeted in this earlier research and consider how it could be applied more effectively to today’s probationers.

Targeted Treatment, Better Results

The advantages provided by today’s modern risk and needs assessment tools may seem reasonably clear, but the importance of these developments can be fully understood only in the context of how offenders were targeted in earlier iterations of ISP. The initial tests of intensive supervision in the 1960s were almost entirely untargeted. Because these programs were initiated for the express purpose of determining an optimal caseload size, they were all but required to be tested using broadly representative samples of offenders drawn from the general population of each agency’s probationers. These efforts were not specifically targeted at those offenders who (in even a rudimentary sense) were thought to present the highest risk of reoffending, nor were they focused on those who presented any defined set of criminogenic needs.

When ISP reemerged in the more surveillance-focused format of the 1980s, on the other hand, it clearly became targeted more carefully, at specific types of offenders. In a general sense, the ISP programs in the RAND study were aimed at those who were deemed to present an elevated risk to public safety. But the exact methods used to define this heightened risk were allowed to vary from site to site. Many of the tested programs focused exclusively on drug offenders. In those sites that included other types of offenders, the definition of what constituted high risk usually relied heavily on the nature of the presenting offense, along with some elements of an offender’s prior criminal and sentencing history (Petersilia & Turner, 1993).

A number of the California sites, meanwhile, used an early paper-and-pencil instrument known as the NIC risk-needs assessment (Petersilia & Turner, 1990), but this approach was far from universal across the RAND studies. Very few details were provided about the design and construction of this particular assessment tool, other than the fact that it used employment history, attitude, mobility, drug and alcohol use, prior incarcerations, and prior convictions to assess recidivism risk, while employing academic/vocational skills, emotional stability, drug and alcohol use, and marital/family relationships to assess needs. By today’s standards, this approach to assessment seems rather unsophisticated. Even more important, all the RAND ISP programs also applied a set of universal exclusionary criteria, which meant that those offenders whose current convictions included any homicide, robbery, or sexual offenses were ineligible for enrollment (Petersilia & Turner, 1993). Thus, contrary to a stated desire to focus ISP on higher-risk offenders, those whose recent criminal histories suggested any serious threat to public safety were eliminated systematically from these ISP caseloads (Gill, 2014).

It seems highly likely, therefore, that earlier waves of interest in ISP have tested this approach using populations that simply did not meet the requirements of either PEI or RNR. The offenders who were subjected to ISP in these evaluations were not those who presented the highest levels of risk across the full range of the agencies’ caseloads. In addition, what little therapeutic programming was employed in the RAND studies (Latessa, Travis, Fulton, & Stichman, 1998) was not especially targeted at those offenders who were optimally in need of such services.

These limitations are especially concerning because there is strong evidence suggesting that an approach that relies heavily on surveillance and control can become ineffective—and even harmful—when applied to offenders with a lower risk profile. Applying ISP to offenders who pose only a modest degree of danger to public safety may not just be a waste of resources, but may actually encourage the very misconduct that these programs are attempting to prevent (Sherman, 1993). In addition, there is some evidence that supervision that leans heavily on punishment and control, employed in so many ISP programs, can mask the gains that could be produced by a more supportive and therapeutic approach (Paparozzi & Gendreau, 2005). Luckily, the principles of PEI and RNR provide the guidance needed to avoid such counterproductive expenditures of resources, and simultaneously, modern forecasting and assessment tools have made it possible to identify accurately those who most require an intensive approach. Our new and ever-improving ability to assess the risk and needs of individual probationers reliably may very well present a game-changing opportunity for a smarter approach to intensive supervision.

Contrary to the existing library of findings, it may be increasingly possible to apply ISP in a far more targeted and effective manner than was possible in the past, and to use it in a way that truly promotes public safety. Moreover, modern ISP programs need not be as focused on surveillance, punishment, and deterrence as they have in many previous iterations (Jalbert, Rhodes, & Flygare, 2010). Although prior ISP research may not have been narrowly targeted on the highest-risk offenders, it seems clear that merely providing a more intensive and punitive form of community supervision will not be enough—in and of itself—to produce the desired benefits of intensive supervision (Hyatt & Barnes, 2014). Instead, the treatment and therapeutic element of ISP, which has frequently been ignored or treated as an afterthought in earlier efforts, will need to be given a far more prominent role in the future; this offers some hope of reducing reoffending (Paparozzi & Gendreau, 2005).

Rather than being seen as a mechanism to deliver more officer contacts, drug screenings, and other means to exert control over offenders’ lives, intensive supervision instead could be viewed as an optimal platform in which to deliver intensive and targeted treatments that uniquely match each offender’s bespoke criminogenic needs. Probationers, however, can be a difficult audience to reach for therapeutic programming. The most active offenders are often involved with other agencies and treatment programs, face pending court dates that can compete with supervision time, and can become subject to contradictory sentences and judicial orders as a result of other cases. They also tend to live extraordinarily disordered lives, frequently becoming unavailable for supervision due to new arrests, illnesses, injuries, periods of incarceration, travel difficulties, and absconding from supervision (Phelps, 2013). These forces can easily combine to make treatment—especially those forms of therapy that require frequent dosages of reinforcement—almost impossible to provide (Hyatt & Barnes, 2017).

ISP can overcome these challenges by delivering the steady and frequent schedule of contacts that most forms of treatment require in order to succeed. With the proper authority, ISP officers also can help coordinate the many competing demands that offenders frequently face after becoming involved in the criminal justice system. Since many of these higher-risk offenders (especially in a parole context) will have recent periods of incarceration, the information and assessments collected during incarceration could provide a very detailed understanding of their criminogenic needs and enhance these efforts even further. These supervisory and assessment elements of intensive supervision can provide a solid foundation on which targeted treatment and other supportive services can be deployed.

While this approach presents a certain amount of promise, a great deal of rigorous research remains necessary in this area. We know very little about how offenders perceive ISP or whether such qualitative information could lead to possible improvements in this approach. The complex diversity of varying assessment tools, the many different mechanisms that can be employed in intensive supervision, and the vast multitude of competing therapeutic programs mean that every ISP program will likely be uniquely structured, and its lessons may not be applied easily to other approaches. ISP research, therefore, is unlikely to yield a single, easy answer for what methods work best, especially as they become increasingly tailored to the needs of individual offenders.


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(1.) ISP also may be referred to as Intensive Supervisory Probation and other, similar names and acronyms. We refer to it in this article using only one term for clarity. Similarly, while probation and parole often involve different kinds of offenders with different kinds of sentences, the core requirements and daily mechanics of supervising them in a community environment are often similar. The term probation in this article can be taken to refer to both populations of offenders.