Exploring Effective Supervision Practices for Women and Men on Probation or Parole

Goals of the Interdisciplinary ISWO research program:

  • Improve understanding and efficacy of parole/probation 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 officers’ interactions that best predict outcomes so that these can be taught in training and education programs

Contact Us at:

Email: ssc.getitright@msu.edu
Phone: 517-432-9235 (ask for Merry Morash)

  • Investigators
    Merry Morash, Ph.D

    Professor of Criminal Justice

    Women Offenders,
    Applied Research for the MI Dept. of Corrections

    Sandi Smith, Ph.D

    Professor of Communication Director of the Health and Risk Communication Center

    Interpersonal Communication and Persuasion

    Jennifer Cobinna, Ph.D

    Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice

    Incarcerated Women and Female Parolees, Qualitative Research

    Deborah Kashy, Ph.D

    Professor of Psychology

    Research Methods & Quantitative Analysis, Multilevel Modeling

  • News

    More Should be Done for Female Parolees

    Published: April 15, 2014
    Contact(s): Andy Henion, Jennifer Cobbina


    As the female prison population grows, a new study funded partly by the National Science Foundation says more should be done to help women probationers and parolees in poor urban areas remain crime-free.

    A team of Michigan State University criminologists found black women on probation and parole feel they have little choice but to isolate themselves in their homes or risk getting caught up in the type of criminal activity that got them in trouble in the first place.

    Probation and parole officers, case managers and others should help the women find housing in safer areas and provide access to resources to help them stay clean, sober and stable. That could be something as simple as transportation to a mental health or substance abuse treatment meeting, said Jennifer Cobbina, lead author on the study and assistant professor of criminal justice.

    On a larger scale, it means reinvesting in low-income communities and confronting discriminatory housing policies and other barriers to living in positive environments faced by racial minorities, she said.

    “Women offenders living in communities where they are socially isolated and economically disadvantaged face incredible difficulties in staying clean, sober and crime-free,” Cobbina said.

    The female prison population in the United States spiked 646 percent from 1980 to 2010, driven largely by drug offenses. By 2010, there were 112,000 women in state and federal prison, which represented 7 percent of the prison population – up from 4 percent in 1980.

    Blacks are six times more likely than whites to return to prison and seven times more likely to return to custody for breaking parole, Cobbina said.

    The researchers surveyed more than 400 women on probation and parole for felony convictions in Michigan. They found black women were more likely to live in crime-ridden urban areas and as a result isolate themselves to the point of avoiding relatives.

    “They wanted to stay away from everyone because they felt like if they let their guard down and associated with others, it increased their likelihood of getting in trouble with the law,” Cobbina said.

    But isolation limits the women’s ability to participate fully in public life and decreases the chances they can engage in positive relationships and networks, Cobbina said.

    Cobbina’s co-authors for the study, which appears in the research journal Race and Justice, are Merry Morash, professor of criminal justice; Deborah Kashy, professor of psychology; and Sandi Smith, professor of communication.

    The study is also funded partly by the MSU Foundation.

    National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women: Innovators



  • Presentations
  • Publications and Articles

    The following are abstracts to academic publications resulting from the project. Each abstract is preceded by the title, authors, and the author to contact for further information about the publication. Other publications are in development.

    Effects of Probation and Parole Agent Communication and Relationships with Women Offenders

    Precursors to Probation and Parole Agent Intent to Send Informational, Emotional, and Esteem Social Support Messages to Female Clients

    Journal of Applied Communication Research

    Smith, Sandi W., Merry Morash, *Elizabeth A. Adams, *Brandon Walling and Amanda J. Holmstrom

    Supervising agents serve as sources of social support for over one million women in the US on probation and parole who strive to avoid recidivism. Little is known about the supportive messages agents intend to provide their female clients or their precursors. The optimal matching model of social support is used in an investigation of the precursors to agents’ intent to send different types of social support messages to the women they supervise. Results indicated that supervising agents intended to provide informational support in the form of suggestions or advice, esteem support in the form of compliments, and emotional support in the form of encouragement to the women. Both agent communication pattern and offender level variables were precursors to the intent to send informational support messages, but only agent communication pattern variables predicted the intent to send emotional support messages

    The Nature and Effects of Messages That Women Receive From Probation and Parole Agents in Conversations About Employment

    Criminal Justice and Behavior

    Roddy, Ariel L, Merry Morash, *Elizabeth A. Adams, Amanda J. Holmstrom, Sandi W. Smith and Jennifer E. Cobbina

    Using semistructured interviews with 388 women under supervision, this study integrates criminal justice and communication theories by investigating gender responsivity and type of support in messages women receive about employment from supervision agents. Informational support was the most frequent form of supportive communication clients received from their agents, and was the only type of supportive communication clients perceived negatively. Women recalled agents’ messages that varied in their sensitivity to the range of women offenders’ needs (child and family care demands, human capital attainment, mental health issues, and substance abuse recovery). Supportive messages that took into account a variety of problems commonly shared by women on probation and parole had positive effects, whereas supportive messages that were relevant to employment, but failed to consider other needs, had negative effects. Results of this work have implications regarding effective support offered by community supervision agents as they discuss employment

    Supervision Intensity, Technical Violations, Treatment and Punishment Responses, and Subsequent Recidivism of Women on Probation and Parole.

    Criminal Justice Policy Review

    Morash, Merry, Deborah A. Kashy, Jennifer E. Cobbina, and Sandi W. Smith

    There is much debate about the effects of punitive or treatment responses to the many women who are on probation and parole.  This article examines whether types of technical violations (drug or non-drug related) and responses to them (treatment or punishment oriented) as well as supervision intensity predict recidivism. Study subjects are 385 women on probation or parole for a felony offense, and official records of violations and recidivism are the data source.  Negative binomial regression analysis revealed that for high-risk women, treatment responses to non-drug violations are related to reductions in recidivism, whereas punitive responses to non-drug offenses are related to increased recidivism.  For low-risk women, treatment responses to non-drug related violations were related to increased recidivism and punitive responses to violations unrelated to drug use were related to decreased recidivism.  Study findings suggest differential reactions to common supervision practices depending on a woman’s initial risk to recidivate.

    Supportive Messages Female Offenders Receive from Probation and Parole Officers about Substance Avoidance:  Message Perceptions and Effects.

    Criminal Justice and Behavior

    Holmstron, Amanda J., Elizabeth A. Adams, Merry Morash, Sandi W. Smith, and Jennifer E. Cobbina

    Substance use is a key reason for initial offending and recidivism for the over one million women on probation and parole in the United States. Social support protects against both recidivism and relapse to substance use. However, many women supervised in the community with a history of substance abuse lack social support from family and friends. Probation and parole officers (POs) may serve as sources of social support for such women. In the current study, types of supportive communication and their effects were coded from semi-structured interview responses from 284 female offenders that recalled supportive messages from their POs regarding substance use avoidance. Results indicate that informational support is most likely to be provided by POs, whereas tangible and network support were reported infrequently. Most supportive communication was perceived positively. Implications of this study include identification of helpful message strategies for POs and gaps in female offenders’ social support resources.

    Is the Nature of Communication Relevant to the Supportiveness of Women’s Relationships with Probation and Parole Agents?

    International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology

    Morash, Merry, Deborah A. Kashy, Sandi W. Smith, and Jennifer E. Cobbina

    This article reports on a study of the connection of probation and parole agents’ communication with relationship supportiveness as perceived by both women offenders and agents. For a sample of offenders and their agents, multilevel modeling was used to control for nonindependence of data for women assigned to the same agent. Consistent with communication theory, a conversational approach was positively related to measures of a supportive relationship, and an authoritarian/ conformity pattern of communication was negatively related to a supportive relationship. For low-risk offenders, attention to client-identified problems was positively related to more supportive relationships. For women with high risk for reoffending, the agents viewed themselves as less supportive if they addressed a high proportion of offender-identified needs. Findings suggest the efficacy of training to promote agents’ conversational communication and attention to offender-identified problems. Findings also suggest the need to more fully explore agents’ experience in working with very high-risk offenders.

    Female Offenders' Multiple Goals for Engaging in Desired Communication with Their Probation/Parole Officers

    Communication Quarterly, 65(1):  p 1-19.

    Cornacchione, Jennifer  and Sandi W. Smith

    The multiple goals approach is used to assess whether or not women on probation or parole engaged in communication with their probation/parole officers (PO) regarding needs or issues they had and about which they wanted to talk. Interviews were conducted with 402 women on probation and parole across Michigan; 127 stated that there was a time when they wanted to talk to their PO about a difficult need or issue they were facing, including housing and illegal activity. Women who were concerned about threats to their freedom were less likely to have initiated the conversation. Findings highlight possible reasons that impact whether or not individuals engage in difficult conversations that are desired.

    The Connection of Probation/Parole Officer Actions to Women Offenders’ Recidivism.

    Criminal Justice and Behavior, 43(4), p 506-524.

    Morash, Merry, Deborah A. Kashy, Jennifer E. Cobbina, and Sandi W. Smith

    Because women offenders often have limited social networks and unique needs, the actions of probation/parole officers providing community supervision may be particularly relevant to outcomes. The present study examined the effects of probation/parole officer relationship style, attention to criminogenic needs, and intensity of supervision on women offenders’ arrests and convictions within a 24-month period. Contrary to findings from other studies, the measured elements of officer actions had no direct effects on recidivism for a sample of 226 women. However, the analysis revealed an indirect effect in which a non-supportive, punitive relationship was related to reactance and anxiety, which in turn were related to high recidivism. The discussion focuses on theoretical and methodological explanations for the null findings regarding direct effects. Moreover, it draws on the literature in psychology and communication to suggest approaches to reducing the reactance that can promote recidivism and to suggest related future research directions.

    An Exploration of Female Offenders' Memorable Messages from Probation and Parole Officers on the Self-Assessment of Behavior from a Control Theory Perspective.

    Journal of Applied Communication Research, 44(1), p 60-77.

    Cornacchione, Jennifer, Sandi W. Smith, Merry Morash, Miriam Northcutt Bohmert, Jennifer E. Cobbina, and Deborah A. Kashy

    Guided by control theory, this study examines memorable messages that women on probation and parole receive from their probation and parole agents. Women interviewed for the study were asked to report a memorable message they received from an agent, and to describe situations if/when the message came to mind in three contexts likely to emerge from a control theory perspective: when they did something of which they were proud, when they stopped themselves from doing something they would later regret, and when they did something of which they were not proud. The types of memorable messages and the reactions to these messages within the three contexts were coded, and differences between women on probation versus parole were examined. Overall, a greater proportion of women on parole recalled memorable messages, and the most frequently reported type of memorable message was behavioral advice. Women reported that the message helped them do things of which they were proud, such as engaging in routine activities and fulfilling goals; helped them to not give into urges that could lead to further negative sanctions or feelings of regret; and came to mind when they relapsed. Practical implications of the findings for training are presented.

    Communication Style as an Antecedent to Reactance, Self-Efficacy, and Restoration of Freedom for Drug- and Alcohol-Involved Women on Probation and Parole.

    Journal of Health Communication, 21(5), p 504-511.

    Smith, S. W., Jennifer J. Cornacchione, Merry Morash, Deborah A. Kashy, and Jennifer E. Cobbina

    This study extends research on psychological reactance theory by examining probation and parole officer (PO) communication style as an antecedent to female offenders’ reactance and two indicators of subsequent drug and alcohol abuse while serving probation or parole sentences. Structural equation modeling was conducted to test a mediational path model of PO communication style (conversation vs. conformity) on women’s self-reported reactance, self-efficacy to avoid substance use, restoration, and subsequent substance use and official records of substance-use violations (obtained via PO case notes). Overall, results demonstrate that perceptions of PO conversational communication style were negatively associated with reactance, but positively associated with self-efficacy to avoid drugs and alcohol. Conversely, women who perceived their POs to have a conformity communication style were more likely to report higher levels of reactance and lower self-efficacy to avoid drugs and alcohol. Psychological reactance led to desire to restore freedom, while self efficacy to avoid drugs and alcohol did not. Desire to restore freedom was linked with reports of using drugs and alcohol and violations by POs for using drugs and alcohol. These findings highlight the importance of communication style in the relationship between POs and offenders.

    The Effects of Probation or Parole Agent Relationship Style and Women Offenders' Criminogenic Needs on Offenders' Responses to Supervision Interactions.

    Criminal Justice and Behavior, 42 (4), p. 412-434. 2015.

    Morash, Merry, Deborah A. Kashy, Sandi W. Smith, and Jennifer E. Cobbina

    Although prior research revealed that in noncorrectional and correctional settings, staff relationship style affects client outcomes, there has been little study of this effect for women offenders. The present study investigated effects of two dimensions of relationship style (probation or parole agent–reported supportiveness and punitiveness) on female clients’ reports of responding to interactions with their agents with anxiety, reactance, and a sense of self-efficacy to avoid a criminal lifestyle. Results of a longitudinal study of 330 women on probation or parole revealed that agent supportiveness elicited lower anxiety and reactance and higher crime-avoidance self-efficacy. Agent punitiveness elicited greater anxiety and crime-avoidance self-efficacy. Moderation effect analysis showed that punitive style was most related to anxiety and reactance for women at lowest risk for reoffending. In contrast, supportiveness was most related to positive outcomes for the highest risk women. The research findings suggest areas for future theory development and approaches to effective correctional practice.

    Research Methods

    Tracking Methods and Retention for a Longitudinal Sample of Alcohol and Drug-Involved Women on Probation and Parole

    Journal of Community Psychology

    Northcutt Bohmert, Miriam, *Kayla M. Hoskins, and Merry Morash

    Attrition, or the progressive loss of individuals from a sample, poses a major problem in fields that carry out research to inform policy and program design. Attrition reduces statistical power by reducing sample size and compromises the external validity of findings by introducing sampling bias. If sampling bias results from disadvantages that act as barriers to research participation, then it promotes social injustice by excluding disadvantaged groups from the study. This study describes strategies used to retain participants in a longitudinal study of experiences of women under community supervision (probation or parole). It uses quantitative methods to examine sampling bias and qualitative methods to elicit accounts of participants' explanations for being hard to reach and their recommendations for retention in future research. For participants who were and who were not retained, there were no statistically significant differences on several common quantitative predictors of retention. Hard-to-reach women identified residential mobility, low income, and busy lifestyles as main reasons research staff had difficulty contacting them and recommended repeated attempts at contact through multiple means. The article ends with recommendations for limiting attrition of disadvantaged, justice-involved women in studies, and for steps to be taken when women are especially difficult to contact.

    Risks for Offending and the Disistance Process for Women Offenders

    Characteristics and Context of Women Probationers and Parolees who Engage in Violence.

    Criminal Justice and Behavior

    Morash, Merry, Deborah A. Kashy, Jennifr E. Cobbina, and Sandi W. Smith

    For a sample of 396 women on probation and parole, this article presents the results of qualitative analysis that shows the nature of violence for a subgroup of 75 women who were convicted of a violent act. For the full sample of 396, the article also presents results of quantitative analyses that identify correlates of violent behavior. Women’s violent acts were most often assaults on people who were not intimate partners. Second and third most common violent acts were for assaults of an intimate partner and robbery, respectively. Quantitative analysis revealed that history of adult abuse and anger predicted violence. The effect of abuse on violent behavior was partially mediated by anger. Intercorrelations between anger, mental health problems, histories of being abused, and current substance abuse suggest the efficacy of assessing these attributes so that programming can provide individualized interventions that address co-occurring problems.

    Women’s Experience of Motherhood, Violations of Supervision Requirements and Arrests.

    British Journal of Criminology

    Adams, Elizabeth A., Merry Morash, Sandi W. Smith, and Jennifer E. Cobbina

    Though parenting is commonly viewed as an important factor influencing women’s desistance from offending, little is known about how specific aspects of parenting relate to recidivism. The present study investigated the connections of parenting stress, parenting involvement, routine parenting activities and maternal motivations to violations of supervision conditions, including arrests, for a sample of 190 women. The findings support desistance theories that identify involvement in routine prosocial activities, in this case caring for children, as an important explanation for complying with requirements of supervision and avoiding arrest. In contrast, motivations regarding motherhood alone do not appear to provide a strong enough catalyst to shift women away from patterns of lawbreaking.

    Women on Parole, Identity Processes, and Primary Desistance.

    Feminist Criminology, online first

    Stone, Rebecca, Merry Morash, Marva Goodson, Jennifer E. Cobbina, and Sandi W. Smith

    The current study employs a prospective mixed-methods design to examine women parolees’ identities early in their supervision and the association of their identity development at that point to their record of subsequent arrests. Guided by narrative identity theory, we first conduct quantitative analysis of the relationship between redemption and contamination narratives and subsequent arrests. We then return to the qualitative interview data to search for additional explanatory themes that shed further light on women’s identity and desistance from crime. Results indicate that identity verification from parole officers and others increases women’s self-esteem and assists them in overcoming barriers to desistance.

    Women at the Nexus of Correctional and Social Policies:  Implications for Recidivism Risk.

    British Journal of Criminology, 57 (2): 441-462.

    Morash, Merry, Deborah A Kashy, Miriam Northcutt Bohmert, Jennifer E. Cobbina, and Sandi W. Smith

    This article addresses criticism by critical and feminist criminologists who fault the Risk/Needs/Responsivity corrections model for ignoring state-created recidivism risks. It examines the connection between women offenders’ changes in access to economic safety net benefits and changes in individual recidivism risk. Longitudinal quantitative data were from 345 women interviewed six months apart in a state with extreme benefits cuts. Loss of monetary assistance and new unmet need for housing aid were significantly related to increased economic-related recidivism risk. Women with consistent unmet needs and those who received benefits had high levels of risk over time. Women with persistent unmet economic need had high levels of other risk that included mental illness and substance abuse. Findings reveal inconsistencies between polices that reduce availability of economic benefits to the poor and the correctional goals of reducing recidivism risk.

    Transportation, Community Supervision, and Recidivism for Women Offenders

    Cumulative Disadvantage and the Role of Transportation in Community Supervision.

    Crime & Delinquency

    Northcutt Bohmert, Miriam and Alfred DeMaris

    Drawing from cumulative disadvantage theory, we are the first to examine the role of transportation disadvantage among other known challenges for women on community supervision. We create a composite measure of transportation disadvantage using factor analyses and data for 362 women on probation and parole in one Midwestern state: It is used to predict arrest and conviction using multiepisode event history analysis and conditional logistic regression. Consistent with cumulative disadvantage theory, the results suggest each additional disadvantage makes women more vulnerable, over and above the other disadvantages. Transportation disadvantage is a significant and entrenched feature in criminal justice-involved women’s lives. The import of modeling all available recidivism events, given the entrenched nature of criminal justice system involvement, cannot be overstated.

    Strategies Female Offenders Use to Increase Access to Transportation.

    Federal Probation, 80(3), p. 45-48.

    Northcutt Bohmert, Miriam

    The Role of Transportation Disadvantage For Women on Community Supervision.

    Criminal Justice and Behavior, 43(11), p. 1522-1540.

    Northcutt Bohmert, Miriam

    Access to transportation (i.e., walking, public transit, personal vehicles), or lack thereof, has not been extensively explored in criminal justice samples. Consequently, mixed-methods study of 366 women on probation and parole is the first to define transportation disadvantage, document its prevalence, and explore the problems related to it. Findings point to four themes, discovered in quantitative data analysis and buttressed by qualitative accounts, that illuminate the importance of transportation to justice-involved women. First, women have extensive transportation deficits at the individual level (e.g., they have poor physical health). Second, women rely heavily on social support. Third, women have deficits at the community level (e.g., they reside in inaccessible areas). Fourth, women have trouble identifying transportation-related problems directly, but through their narratives identify 10 distinct types. Further, transportation was a pressing concern for 42.6% of women that coincides with other needs such as health, safety, employment, neighborhood accessibility, and social support.

    The Perceptions and Strategies of Women Offenders in the Community

    Women Offenders’ Perception of Treatment by Police and Courts.

    Lives of Incarcerated Women:  An International Perspective, p 126-141.
    Eds. Candace Kruttschnitt and Catrien Bijleveld.  New York:  Routledge.

    Cobbina, Jennifer E. and Merry Morash

    Nearly four decades of research on procedural justice demonstrates that individuals’ encounters with justice system officials shape their perceptions of those officials and their judgments about fairness and legitimacy. However, most studies rely on survey research to study people in the general population who rarely break the law. In an attempt to fill the gap in the literature, using in-depth interviews, this study examines female parolees’ perceptions of treatment they received from the police and judges. Study results confirm that women’s views of their interactions with police and judges influence their judgments about fairness and legitimacy in the application of the law.

    Race, Neighborhood Context, and Strategies to avoid Victimization among Female Probationers and Parolees.

    Race and Justice, 4(4): 358-380.

    Cobbina, Jennifer. E., Merry Morash, Deborah A Kashy, and Sandi W Smith

    An established body of literature shows that females have higher levels of fear than males. Research suggests that women typically resort to rather constraining behavioral actions that limit their participation in public life. However, it is unclear whether the strategies women use to avoid victimization are tied to community context, especially for high-risk populations, such as women offenders. We build from insights of previous research by examining what strategies female probationers and parolees use to avoid victimization and their perception of how effective such strategies are in keeping them safe, whether the subjective and objective measures of neighborhood context is related to women’s strategies and whether the strategies used to avoid victimization vary by race and economic status.

    Race, Neighborhood Danger, and Coping Strategies among Female Probationers and Parolees.

    Race and Justice, 4(1): 3-28.

    Cobbina, Jennifer E., Merry Morash, Deborah A. Kashey, and Sandi W. Smith

    Research suggests that individuals on probation and parole typically reside in impoverished neighborhoods affected by multiple forms of socioeconomic disadvantage. These neighborhoods are often extremely segregated, resulting in the concentration of deleterious effects, including crime, on communities of color, especially African Americans. We build on previous research by examining how Black and White female offenders negotiate neighborhood crime in distressed communities. Using a mixed-methods approach, our findings suggest that perceptions of neighborhood safety, crime, and strategies to avoid offending are different for Black and White women and related to neighborhood context. We propose that future research should investigate long-term outcomes of the use of particular strategies to address neighborhood crime.




  • Reports

    Effects of Probation and Parole Agent Communication and Relationships with Women Offenders

    Risks for Offending and the Desistance Process for Women Offenders

    Transportation, Community Supervision, and Recidivism for Women Offenders

    The Perceptions and Strategies of Women Offenders in the Community

    Women on Probation and Parole in Michigan

  • Supported By

    This Project is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and
    the Michigan State University Foundation.