High-Fidelity Specialty Mental Health Probation Improves Officer Practices, Treatment Access, and Rule Compliance

Many probation agencies in the United States assign offenders with mental illness to relatively small specialty caseloads supervised by officers with relevant training, rather than to large general caseloads. Specialty caseloads are designed to improve the process and outcomes of probation, largely by linking these probationers with psychiatric treatment and avoiding unnecessary violations. In this multimethod, longitudinal matched trial, we tested whether a prototypical specialty agency (n = 183) differed from a traditional agency (n = 176) in officers' practices, probationers' treatment access, and probationers' rule violations. The specialty agency yielded significantly (a) better officer practices (e.g., problem solving rather than sanction threats; higher quality relationships with probationers; more boundary spanning), (b) greater rates of treatment involvement, and (c) lower rates of violation reports than the traditional agency. Additionally, officers' use of sanctions and threats increased probationers' risk of incurring a probation violation, whereas high-quality officer-probationer relationships protected against this outcome. When implemented with fidelity, specialty mental health caseloads improved the supervision process for this high-need group.