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Probation Evolution: A More Empathetic Approach

By Victoria Moreland, SMC Community Engagement Advisor

The Seattle Municipal Court (SMC) recently completed its Probation Evolution Project, implementing a new probation approach that is more empathetic and supportive to probation clients. This new approach departs from the traditional, punitive-based model and focuses on helping clients succeed in rehabilitation and prevent recidivism.

Under the new approach, probation counselors now spend more time with the client upfront, helping them understand their court-ordered obligations. Together, counselors and clients create a personalized plan that considers client interests, needs, and goals. In addition, counselors take time to understand each client’s situation, link them to resources, and provide support and encouragement as they move through a 3-phase probation process. As client’s succeed in their goals, their reporting frequency becomes less and in the third phase, they are no longer required to meet with their probation counselor.

SMC community engagement staff recently interviewed four probation clients who were in various phases of this new approach to probation, and who had varying experiences with probation programs in the past. 

The positive impact of SMC’s new probation approach became apparent as each of the four participants shared their experiences and feedback. For example, “Client One” shared that their probation counselor took the time to walk them through all the steps, and they felt more valued, appreciated, and supported. Similarly, “Client Four” found their probation counselor to be compassionate and caring, providing them with direction and structure and celebrating their achievements.

The new probation approach requires probation counselors to participate in training in empathy, race and social justice, trauma-informed care, harm reduction, motivational interviewing, and working with justice-involved women. Along with training, new processes, policies, and tools equip probation counselors to support clients equitably. This approach aligns with the emerging research that suggests that empathy and support are essential in helping probation clients succeed in their rehabilitation.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) [1] found that, “probation counselors with empathy training become more empathic towards their clients.” SMC’s new probation training, process, and tools show that probation clients receive intensive support and guidance from empathetic probation counselors and will be more likely to complete their probation successfully and have lower recidivism rates.

SMC’s new probation approach is a step in the right direction toward a more empathetic, equitable, and supportive justice system. It recognizes that rehabilitation and support are crucial to reducing recidivism and creating a more just and equitable society.

SMC anticipates that future evaluation of our probation program will indicate a significant improvement in client outcomes and show these changes have minimized disproportionality within the probation program, particularly for women and people of color. Through the Probation Evolution Project and others like it, SMC hopes for a future where the criminal justice system focuses on healing and rehabilitation rather than punishment and retribution.


[1] “Empathic-Supervision Exercise Mitigates Recidivism in Longitudinal, Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial” (PNAS)

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that an empathic-supervision exercise can mitigate recidivism in probation and parole officers. The exercise involved officers participating in a role-playing activity with actors who portrayed clients. The study found that officers who underwent the training had clients who were less likely to re-offend.

Reference: Okonofua, J.A., Paunesku, D., & Walton, G.M. (2021). “Empathic-Supervision Exercise Mitigates Recidivism in Longitudinal, Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi:10.1073/pnas.2018036118 

 A scalable empathic supervision intervention to mitigate recidivism from probation and parole | PNAS

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