Schar School, UCF Team Up on NSF Grant to Develop Post-COVID-19 Probation, Parole Policies

A woman in a blue top with a blue pendant necklace smiles at the camera.
Faye Taxman: ‘The benefits will be policies that agencies can put into place.’ Photo by Ron Aira/Creative Services

A multi-university team of researchers is seeking silver linings from the COVID-19 pandemic by using the experience to help correction agencies develop new guidelines for probation and parole supervision during viral pandemics.

The researchers say the work can help ensure people on probation and parole get the help they need while also maintaining public safety.

University Professor Faye S. Taxman, director of the Center for the Advancing Correctional Excellence (ACE!) at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, and Jill Viglione, an associate professor in the University of Central Florida’s Department of Criminal Justice, are coprincipal investigators of the project.

The study is funded by a three-year, $670,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

The team’s findings will be readily accessible and disseminated via the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA) to better inform and prepare community supervision agencies moving forward.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, community supervision agencies were forced to drastically adapt policies and best practices to address public safety goals for supervising those on probation or parole while reducing the spread of COVID-19. This included supervision through virtual meetings to maintain social distance.

“COVID-19 raised concerns about how justice agencies work with individuals during a natural disaster like the pandemic,” said Taxman. “The study will help develop practice guidelines for probation and parole organizations on how to protect staff, how to manage daily operations, and how to ensure that clients are safe. The methods will combine opinions of key stakeholders with scientific studies. The benefits will be policies that agencies can put into place.”

The university researchers and experts at APPA will operate with a three-pronged approach. Beginning in July, they will convene a work group of experts in the probation and parole field, as well as infectious disease and medical experts, to help provide insight.

Next, the project will move into case studies involving three different jurisdictions as identified with the assistance of the work group. In each jurisdiction, the team will survey and interview community supervision clients, officers, and administrators. The researchers will also look at administrative data to examine trends in outcomes—before, during, and post-pandemic—based on what changes were made and their resulting impacts.

“We’re going to analyze all of this information and data to create findings reports from each case study, and then bring them to the expert work group for feedback that will help inform the project’s two main deliverables: a database of successful practices and policies throughout the pandemic as well as the new evidence-based guidelines themselves,” Viglione said.

In conjunction with the guidelines, APPA will convene a new core committee on health and safety. The team’s findings will also branch out to other topics related to the health and safety of community supervision clients and staff, further informing conversations surrounding national health inequities.

Viglione said the team’s research could also provide insight into the implications of reform-related changes in community supervision that have been discussed but often met with resistance. That includes possible incorporation of technology like virtual meetings with clients under supervision beyond the pandemic.

“It’s not the main goal, but there are some potential indirect benefits in that our findings will be able to inform some ideas for reform that could be linked to some of the bigger problems in community supervision,” she said. “For example, a lot of directors and officers really liked using technology and virtual meetings, but they wanted to know if there was empirical support for doing this beyond when we had to do it during the pandemic.”

She said the ultimate hope is that their findings will be used to make progress in the field, both in how policies related to public health and safety are organized and how they could also serve as change agents for reform.

“Learning from the perspective of everybody involved really has the potential to improve the field not only by informing empirical-based guidelines but also by adding to the growing conversation surrounding reform in the system,” Viglione said.

Additional reporting by Danielle Hendrix, University of Central Florida.