Judicial Council Report on Palmer Probation Project

"Judicial Council Report on Palmer Probation Project" by Justice Center, University of Alaska Anchorage. Alaska Justice Forum 16(2): 4–5 (Summer 1999). This article summarizes an Alaska Judicial Council report on a 15-month pilot probation program for misdemeanor domestic violence offenders in Palmer. The Palmer project, which ran from 1998 through the first part of 1999, had two goals: to develop offender accountability and to increase victim safety.

The Alaska Judicial Council has released a report which contains a description and evaluation of the fifteen-month pilot probation program for misdemeanor domestic violence offenders recently completed in Palmer. The report describes the nature of the program, the characteristics of supervised offenders and outcomes for these offenders. It also presents the results of an evaluation which compared outcomes for offenders in the program with those from a set of cases in which the offenders did not receive supervision. The evaluation also included an interview component which elicited reactions to the program from its participants.

The Palmer Project

The project in Palmer, which ran from 1998 through the first part of 1999, was conceived as a pilot project which would provide probation supervision to a selected group of offenders convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence violations. The majority—about 95 per cent—of Alaska offenders convicted of domestic abuse are convicted of misdemeanors and ordinarily receive no formal supervision once released from custody. This absence of supervision has been perceived as a weak link in the criminal justice system. The pilot project was funded by a $131,000 grant under the federal Violence Against Women Act. It had two goals: to develop offender accountability and to increase victim safety. It comprised a collaborative effort among various branches of the justice system serving Palmer: local law enforcement; the district attorney’s office; district and superior court judges; the Valley Women’s Resource Center; and the Palmer probation office.

Those planning the program decided to target more serious domestic violence offenders for inclusion in the program, on the theory that supervision resources should not be expended on less serious offenders who might be likely to succeed without extra attention.

Over the fifteen months a total of 47 offenders were supervised. Most often, the district attorney’s office made the request that an offender be admitted to the program, although judges also ordered supervised probation sua sponte. Defense attorneys typically did not ask for their clients to be admitted to the program.

One probation officer supervised all the domestic violence misdemeanants in the program. The caseload averaged about 40 offenders per month early in the program and 30 per month later. (This contrasts with an average active felony probation caseload of about 100 offenders per officer in the Palmer probation office.)

A review of the probation officer’s contact log showed the intense level of supervision permitted by the small caseload. The officer averaged 42 contacts with each offender and met face-to-face with all but three offenders. During these contacts, she inquired about employment, residence and compliance with treatment requirements and initiated discussions about the offender’s perspective on what had happened and the nature of domestic violence.

The probation officer also contacted most of the supervised offenders’ victims—a practice not normally associated with probation supervision —to ask about the victim’s sense of safety and the offender’s behavior.

Characteristics of Offenders

The Judicial Council report presents a list of characteristics of offenders in the supervised group and a similar list for offenders in the set of cases which was used as a control group for purposes of statistical comparison. The report details how the control group was chosen from 1997 and 1998 filings in the Palmer court system.

Almost all offenders, in both the program group (47) and in the set of cases selected as a control group (123) for the purposes of the evaluation, had been charged with assault in the fourth degree, which is a misdemeanor. A few had originally been charged with Assault III, a felony. All had been convicted of a misdemeanor offense against an intimate partner—most commonly assault or interfering with a domestic violence report. Most offenders were married to or living with the victims at the time of the offense. Sentences imposed by judges typically included incarceration for several days or weeks; conditions of probation requiring offenders to complete a batterer intervention program and substance abuse assessment or treatment; and, in some cases, a suspended fine. Judges seldom ordered restitution or community work service.

The majority of offenders had at least one prior misdemeanor conviction—89 per cent of the supervised group and 62 per cent of the unsupervised. About 60 per cent of the supervised offenders were under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the offense. Because of the way information is maintained in criminal history records and court files, data on substance abuse for the control group was less reliable, although for a little over half (54%) there was some indication in the records of a history of substance abuse.

The supervised offenders and those in the control group were mostly Caucasian, although minorities were slightly overrepresented in both groups compared to the general population of the Mat-Su valley. Women were 2 per cent of the supervised group and 17 per cent of the control group. The average age of supervised offenders was 34 years. In the control group the average age was 35.5 years.

All but two of the supervised offenders (4%) possessed at least a high school degree or GED. No educational information was available for the control group. Over half of the offenders in both groups reported full or part-time employment.

Outcomes

Five (11%) of the supervised offenders were alleged to have committed a new domestic violence offense against the same victim and two (4%) against another victim. A new offense against the same victim was alleged for eleven of the control group (9%) and a new offense against a different victim for two (2%).

The probation officer filed one or more petitions to revoke probation against 72% of the supervised offenders (34). Petitions to revoke were filed against only half (60) of the control group.

For those with treatment programs ordered as a condition of probation, about a third of both the supervised offenders and the other group successfully completed court-ordered batterer-intervention programs. Thirty-seven per cent of the supervised group partially completed their programs, as did 21 per cent of the control group.

Thirty-five per cent of the supervised offenders completed substance abuse programs and 42 per cent partially completed the required treatment programs. Thirty-two per cent of the control completed their programs and 34 per cent partially completed the programs.

Evaluation

The Judicial Council evaluation used both quantitative and qualitative data to understand the effects of the program. The quantitative data, some of which is detailed above, was obtained from court and probation files, from the Alaska Public Safety Information Network (APSIN) and from treatment providers. It became the basis for a statistical comparison. In addition, both structured and informal interviews were conducted with judicial officers, police, attorneys and victim service providers. One offender and one victim were also interviewed. (Attempts to contact more victims and offenders were hampered by time and scheduling constraints.)

As the discussion in the previous section indicates, the supervised offenders resembled the control group in many variables including ethnicity, age, employment, relationship to victims and charges. The groups differed on several important variables including gender, prior record, and conditions of probation.

After discussing the problems which undercut precise comparability, the report presents the results of the statistical comparison between the two groups. The comparison found: the difference between the supervised group and the control group in complying with conditions on completing treatment program was not statistically significant; no statistically significant difference in the rates at which the two groups re-offended appeared; a statistical difference did exist in the percentages of probation revocation between the groups, with the supervised offenders more likely than those in the control group to have their probation revoked.

(Another quantitative finding which emerges from the study as it is reported is that women were named as defendants in almost a quarter (23%) of all the Palmer intimate-partner assault cases examined for the study. They accounted for 17 per cent of those ultimately convicted. This was true even though Palmer prosecutors dismissed cases against women at a much higher rate than they did for men.)

The other component of the Council evaluation was based on interviews conducted with those involved in the program. (Those who were interviewed were not aware of the results of the quantitative evaluation at the time of the interview.) With the exception of defense attorneys, the people interviewed were satisfied with the project and asked that it be continued. Judges, prosecutors, law enforcement and victim service providers perceived the program as a helpful resource. They relied on the probation officer to keep track of offenders they regarded as being at high risk of re-offending or violating probation. They also believed that the probation officer played an important coordination role among all players in the justice system. Defense attorneys argued that the program was ineffective in helping their clients to complete court-ordered conditions of probation, with their supervised clients more likely to be charged with offenses or violations unrelated to the original crime – in their opinion, a consequence that did not help clients complete treatment or stay out of jail.

The program provided an important resource to victims, many of whom kept in close touch with the probation officer. This level of victim service is not normally available for misdemeanor cases in the criminal justice system.

Observations

Based on the findings of the evaluation the Judicial Council made three observations. First, since this evaluation suggests that probation supervision did not help offenders complete court-ordered treatment, more research should be done before deciding to start any future monitoring programs. Research should examine other models of post-release monitoring which might be more effective.

Second, since the program provided a valuable resource to victims and a level of victim service not regularly available for misdemeanor cases, future research could focus on how to replicate this level of service in a cost-effective way.

Finally, the evaluation points to three other areas for possible research. Victims, offenders, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and probation officers might together design a post-release monitoring program aimed toward helping offenders complete court-ordered treatment. Another research project could re-examine the offenders studied in this report at a later date. Finally, additional research is needed to illuminate how often and under what circumstances women are involved as the offender in domestic violence cases.

Copies of the report, “Evaluation of Pilot Probation Program for Misdemeanor Domestic Violence Offenders”, which is discussed in this article, may be obtained from the Alaska Judicial Council or through its web site at http://www.ajc.state.ak.us/.