National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women

Innovator: Dr. Merry Morash, Professor of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University

The goals of the study of Probation/
Parole Officer Interactions with Women Offenders are to:

  • Improve understanding and efficacy of probation/parole supervision of women offenders;
  • Examine whether the style and content of supervision interactions predict women’s recidivism and key related outcomes;
  • Identify measurable dimensions of supervising officers’ interactions that best predict outcomes so that these can be taught in training and education programs; and,
  • Identify the barriers to reductions in women’s risk for recidivism.

Dr. Merry Morash is a Professor of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University with expertise in the areas of Women Offenders and Applied Research. She has enjoyed an extensive career in criminal justice that includes having directed and provided services in community-based juvenile, court, and prison aftercare programs along the Eastern Seaboard to positions consulting and training with state and local criminal justice agencies on gender-responsive corrections, organizational change, and assistance to crime victims. For two decades, she has concentrated on correctional programming for women offenders, management strategies for correctional agencies that focus on women, and assessment of recidivism risk across girls’ and women’s pathways to crime. Early in her career, Dr. Morash was part of a group that founded a children’s visitation program in a Michigan women’s correctional facility; and in 2010, she authored the book, Women on Probation and Parole: A Feminist Critique of Community Programs and Services that focuses on gender responsive and traditional probation and parole strategies for women offenders.

Interview with Dr. Merry Morash

Q How did you become interested in researching issues specific to justice system involved women?

A Very early on, through my research on women police officers, it became apparent that research on women was not occurring the way it ought to. When I became a member of the American Society of Criminology’s Division on Women and Crime, I talked to others who also expressed concerns about the huge gap in research. Despite dramatic increases in the women offender population, very little research had been conducted, particularly on the problems that contributed to women’s criminality or the effectiveness of institutional and community-based programming.  Little was known about what made programs and practices effective for women offenders. All of this revealed the need for more research.

In the late 1990’s, I was the Principal Investigator for two studies funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). One study involved surveying the field for information on “what works for which women offenders” with respect to program characteristics that were promising for achieving positive outcomes.1  The second study examined promising community corrections programs in two different settings, and showed these programs’ more positive results in a comparison with outcomes from traditional programs.2

Q We understand that you are currently conducting research examining women on probation and parole in Michigan. Can you tell us about this research?

A The research is unique because it is highly interdisciplinary, bringing together not only experts in criminal justice (myself and Dr. Jennifer E. Cobbina), but also in psychology and multilevel modeling (Dr. Deborah Kashy) and in communication (Dr. Sandi W. Smith).  We are all professors at Michigan State University.  Previous research I conducted on promising programs for women led me to organize this interdisciplinary team to study women on probation and parole.  It’s very popular to study women in prison, but a much larger population of women is on probation or parole, and that’s a neglected area. We decided to look at women on probation and parole in Michigan.  The Michigan Department of Corrections oversees all probation and parole operations at the felony level. The Department emphasizes gender responsive approaches, which made Michigan a unique place to carry out our research. Recognizing the great savings and offenders’ improved quality of life that come from effective community corrections, the Michigan State University Foundation provided the initial funding for the research.  Soon after, the National Science Foundation (grant #1126162) provided substantial additional funding, which allowed us to expand the research to do the following:

  • Improve understanding and efficacy of probation/parole supervision of women offenders;
  • Examine whether the style and content of supervision interactions predict women’s recidivism and key related outcomes;
  • Identify measurable dimensions of supervision officers’ interactions that best predict outcomes so that these can be taught in training and education programs; and,
  • Understand the barriers, challenges, and successes for women supervised in the community.

The project design included surveying and interviewing 73 probation and parole agents and 402 women from 16 counties in south-central Michigan. Of the women under supervision, 305 were on probation, 93 were on parole, and 4 were on both probation and parole.  The majority of women were White (46%), 34% were Black, 11% identified as Multiracial, 6% reported as Hispanic and 3% identified as Other. Ages ranged from 18 to 60 with the average reported to be 34 years of age. A little more than half (215) of the women in the study had children under age 18, and 140 of those were single parents.

All women in the study had a current felony conviction.  About half (216) had no prior felony convictions, 80 had one or two prior felony convictions, and 93 had three or more.  Economically, more than half (220) were unemployed, 112 had part-time employment, and 70 were gainfully employed on a full-time basis. The majority (327) reported annual incomes of less than $10,000.
It is rare to be able to carry out longitudinal research on such a large and diverse group of women on probation and parole.  The large sample, the inclusion of three interviews for each woman over a six month period, and tracking official recidivism for 18 months meant that we were able to determine the effects of probation and parole for important subgroups of women, for example women with mental illness or current drug involvement, or women at especially high risk.

Q What are the initial study findings about the effects of how probation and parole officers relate to women on their caseloads?

A Because the Michigan Department of Corrections had probation and parole officers who specialized in working with women, Michigan is an ideal setting to look at how probation and parole agents relate and communicate with the women offenders they supervise. Both agents and offenders evaluated the agent’s relationship style with the women in three areas:  How constructive and positive their working relationship was, how safe and trusting their working relationship was, and how controlling or unequal in status their working relationship was.

Women and agents tended to agree about the unique nature of their working relationship.  For example, if the agent reported having an especially positive relationship, the woman also reported having an especially positive relationship.  An agent’s behavior early during supervision predicted how women perceived them later during supervision.  Specifically, agents who discussed a wider array of issues (e.g., education, job skills, criminal thinking, money, housing, criminal associates) with a woman during early supervision interactions were seen as establishing more constructive and safe relationships with them. When agents had a more constructive style, the women offenders tended to report lower anxiety after supervision interactions.  In contrast, when agents had a more controlling style, their supervisees reported greater anxiety after supervision.

In the next several months, we will be collecting more recidivism data at the 12-month and 18-month periods, which we will be able to report on in May 2014.  This recidivism data will be used to investigate whether more positive relationships with agents translate into less illegal activity. Nature of Offender & Probation/Parole Agent Relationships for Women on Probation & Parole brief

Applying a theory from the field of communication, we found a number of women who recalled what their agents had said as a memorable message, which is what someone (e.g., parents, teachers) says that a person remembers and carries with them for a long time that gives them ideas about how they should behave.   We were interested in knowing if there were things that agents said that reinforced their positive behaviors or decreased violation behaviors.  We learned that probation and parole agents do have some degree of influence. The motivational messages or behavioral advice women think about in the moment is important. Our brief, “Agent Memorable Messages Recalled by Women on Probation and Parole” provides additional details on this. Memorable Messages from Agents.

We also determined how many women in our sample were exposed to multiple types of neighborhood risk. Nearly three-quarters of the women reported living in neighborhoods with criminal activity, and more than half of these women lived in neighborhoods with drugs.

We found that Black women were much more likely than White women to live in disadvantaged neighborhoods where crime is prevalent. As a result, many African American women responded to crime by isolating themselves due to the nature of their neighborhoods. They are not interacting with people, not joining informal groups, not talking to neighbors, and have no friends.  They avoid everyone. And many believed that keeping to themselves was the safest way to avoid being drawn into “trouble.”

However, women who lived in neighborhoods that were better off used less restraining strategies. For example, they were more likely to interact with people who don’t use drugs or break the law. As a result, they were less isolated and more able to fully participate in public life.  This is important because women offenders residing in communities where they are socially isolated, economically disadvantaged, and lack resources face incredible difficulties in staying clean, sober, and crime-free. These difficulties they face can translate to an increased likelihood of reoffending, which increases the victimization risk for members in society. Additional details are available in our brief, “Race, Neighborhood Crime, and Coping Strategies of Women on Probation and Parole. Staying Out of Trouble PDF.

Q What have you learned about reducing risk for women on probation and parole?

A We also administered the Women’s Risk/Needs Assessment (WRNA)3 tool, which was developed and validated specifically for women offenders, to get a measure of women offenders’ needs and strengths.  Needs and strengths indicate risk for recidivism.  In the sample we studied, 22% percent of women were assessed as low risk, 49% were assessed medium risk, and 29% were assessed as high risk for recidivism.

Prior research on gender-responsive corrections has shown that when women receive benefits and services that meet the needs that the gender-responsive assessment tool, the WRNA, measures, many of which are specific to or especially high for women, their risk for recidivism is reduced. Those needs are in the areas of substance abuse and mental health treatment, financial assistance, education and job preparation, and safe affordable housing. Some relevant types of public benefits and services available include cash assistance (e.g., welfare, social security), public housing and housing vouchers, food assistance (e.g., food stamps, electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards), substance abuse or mental health treatment, education or training, and medical insurance and care. For our sample, we collected self-reported data on which of these benefits and services the women in our study needed, and on whether they were able to obtain them.  Women were accurate in describing the same needs that the WRNA identified, and they revealed numerous barriers to meeting several key needs.

Statewide reductions in public services for the poor impact women disproportionately, especially those returning to the community on parole. Many women could not obtain cash, medical, and housing assistance. The women on both probation and parole in our sample indicated that their highest unmet needs were for housing, cash assistance, medical support, and education and training. Almost a third of the women with unmet food assistance needs did not know if they were eligible for benefits.  Many women reported difficulty in determining their eligibility for housing assistance, or were ineligible for subsidized or public housing due to their criminal histories. Many felt highly stigmatized by policies that banned them from public housing assistance.  Conversely, 61% of the women received mental health and/or substance abuse treatment, and few women felt they had an unmet need for these services.  This last finding is largely a result of the Michigan Department of Corrections’ recognition of the importance of substance abuse and mental health treatment, and financial support to provide these services.

Additional information on these findings is chronicled in our brief, “Women on Probation and Parole: Access to Crime Reducing Benefits and Programs“.

Q What are the implications of the data?  How is the research being used?

A Women in our study suffer the most when they need housing or financial aid. The reductions in public services to the poor have really hurt them and they aren’t getting those services. This creates an interesting dilemma, because it’s our broader social policies that affect women’s needs that are known to affect recidivism. The state is investing a fair amount of money in probation and parole, drug treatment, and mental health care, while cutting services to the poor at the same time. Some women without housing feel they have to live with abusive men. Women without medical insurance go without medication, care and diagnostic tests for serious illnesses. Reductions in support for the poor end up undermining state priorities to reduce incarceration and crime and may be fueling returns to prison. So, when policymakers are cutting other benefits, they should also consider the implications beyond saving money. We’ve shared this information with prison administrators.

Although certain aspects of agent/offender interactions have been studied, this is an area that really needs a lot more research. The preliminary findings show that it does matter how agents interact with the women on their caseloads; however, we need a lot more information about what works, specifically what works with which women. We know, for example, that women differ greatly from each other – some have mental health issues, some have serious histories of trauma and abuse, many are mothers.   We will next look at what communications and relationships with probation and parole agents seem to work with certain women. We predicted that it may not matter what agents do in terms of low risk women, but their interventions may be crucial to understanding the outcomes for higher risk women. We are especially interested in knowing what specific things agents can do that are helpful to women that also reduce their risk level for recidivism.

Q What lessons have you learned that can be helpful to probation and parole officers working with justice-involved women?

A Preliminary findings plus prior research show that it’s helpful to conduct gender-informed risk assessments and then to spend time addressing the issues/needs that are identified. Talking to the women about their needs and then making appropriate referrals is also important. Looking more broadly to policies that affect women, policymakers are in a position to increase support or make cuts, which often affect women more than men, and may work to either support or undermine state efforts to reduce prison populations.

Q Let’s explore the issue of research in the context of evidence-based metrics. Being gender responsive has been critiqued as not being “evidence-based” given the small study sizes, lack of meta-analyses, etc. Do you see this changing in the future?

A The critics of research on evidence-based practice, I believe, are generally assuming that the only way to produce valid findings is through experiments replicated in multiple places in order to yield ample evidence to say an intervention is evidence-based. There’s different kinds of practical research that’s just as important. We are gathering empirical data that helps inform practice. Our research is gathering practice-based evidence to show how probation and parole officer practices in real-world settings are related to women offenders’ intermediate and long term outcomes.  For instance, we can see that some probation and parole officers’ style of relating to women leads to a positive and constructive relationship, but others have a style that emphasizes unequal status and control.  A constructive and positive relationship is associated with women’s lower levels of anxiety and higher levels of self-efficacy after they talk with their supervising officers.  This is important information, and it will be even more important if these immediate responses to the probation or parole officer are related to recidivism.  The focus on practice-based evidence is a different way of looking at research.

Q Do you see gender responsive research getting stronger or more evidence-based?

A I just don’t know about support for research from multiple sources.  But, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Michigan State University Foundation (MSUF) have been very supportive of our work. When Federal agencies give out money, the funding is an issue for women and girls, because research is primarily focused on men because they are the greater correctional population. NSF and MSUF provided us the resources to maintain very high study participant retention rates across three interviews, and to survey the probation and parole agents to measure both their general approach to working with women and the specific approaches they used for each woman in the study.  The study represents a huge investment of human and financial resources. So I would have to say that we have benefitted from investment in research on women offenders, in part because of the growing recognition of gender differences in pathways into crime and desistance.

Q What are some strategies for increasing the number of studies as well as the legitimacy and credibility of gender responsiveness?  

A One strategy would be to organize a really skilled research team that can get the data and do quality analysis and field work, multi-level modeling techniques, and qualitative research. Our project is unique because it is interdisciplinary, cutting across the disciplines of criminal justice, psychology, and communication.  Interdisciplinary research is necessary to get fresh ideas.

Q Are you aware of any new research that is being conducted – by you or anyone else – that is focused on justice-involved women?

A Jennifer Skeem, Professor of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California-Irvine has done research on dual role relationships that is related to parole officer relationships, but not specifically focused on women.

Another piece of research being conducted by one of my dissertation students, Miriam Northcutt Bohmert, is on women’s access to transportation.  She identified transportation as an unaddressed aspect that can impact success and quality of life for women on probation and parole. Compared to men, women have many unique transportation needs, and these have not been studied.  For instance, many women are responsible for children and must get them to doctors, child-care, and schools.  Also, access to services and benefits that women need to support themselves and any dependents is very important for reducing gender-specific risks, and transportation can have major impacts on access.  Miriam has received funding from both NIJ and NSF to add questions to our study, and to conduct a follow-up qualitative study of 75 women.  These additions focus exclusively on transportation issues. Transportation is a major challenge for women on parole and probation. Some have no car, no insurance for their car, or no license to drive. Statewide budget cuts have affected bus service in rural and urban areas, thus making transportation inaccessible. An abstract of her research is available and she will be happy to share her results when her work is complete. Women Transportation Abstract.

Q What advice do you have for professionals and practitioners working with justice-involved women to achieve more successful outcomes?

A You really have to understand their needs and address them as far as you can with the resources you have available to you. Also, be aware that some forms of communication can backfire. For example, in communication theory there is a concept called reactance.  When someone is telling you something and you think they are taking away your freedoms, one reaction is to respond negatively, and do the opposite of what you are told to do. It’s important to understand how different messages are communicated or received.

For criminal justice practitioners, research on Relational Theory provides key information on the importance of communicating with women to create environments that respond to and address their unique needs. In Jean Baker Miller’s book, Toward a New Psychology of Women, she posits that, while both men and women desire connection with others, women are acutely attuned to and primarily motivated to build a sense of connection with others. Moreover, women respond to interactions that are respectful, mutual and compassionate.4 Thus, Relational Theory supports building rapport and trust to achieving more successful outcomes with women offenders.

Morash, M., Bynum, T. & Koons, B. (1998).  Women Offenders:  Programming Needs and Promising Approaches.  National Institute of Justice Research in Brief.  August. Washington, DC:  U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice.

Morash, M. (2010). Women on Probation and Parole:  A Feminist Critique of Community Programs and Services.  Boston:  Northeastern University Press.

Van Voorhis, P., Salisbury, E., Wright, E. & Bauman, A. (2008).  Achieving Accurate Pictures of Risk and Identifying Gender Responsive Needs: Two New Assessments for Women Offenders. Cincinnati, OH: University of Cincinnati Center for Criminal Justice Research. Available at: http://nicic.gov/Library/022844.

Covington, S. (1998). The Relational Theory of Women’s Psychological Development: Implications for the Criminal Justice System. Paper presented at the 50th Annual Meeting of the American Society of Criminology. Washington, DC: November.

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