UC Berkeley study finds empathy training reduces recidivism rates

Infographic showing how empathy training for police officers may have an effect on reducing recidivism
Quynh Truong/Staff

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A UC Berkeley study published March 29 found that empathy training for probation and parole officers led to a reduction in bias against supervisees and recidivism rates among their clients.

The researchers surveyed more than 200 officers who oversee more than 20,000 formerly incarcerated individuals, according to the study. Over the course of 10 months, there was a 13% decrease in recidivism among the clients of parole and probation officers who participated in the empathy training.

“Our findings support the notion that the default mindset in criminal justice settings may be punitive, as opposed to rehabilitative or empathic,” said Kimia Saadatian, co-author of the study, in an email. “Criminal justice policy can benefit from putting systems and structures in place to provide officers an opportunity to get to know and build meaningful relationships with the adults on probation or parole who they supervise.”

The study was initiated in 2018 by campus assistant professor of psychology Jason Okonofua and a team of UC Berkeley students. Based on a previous study Okonofua designed for teachers to reduce punitiveness towards students, the empathetic supervision intervention aimed to provide parole and probation officers with a more empathetic mindset, and led to a meaningful reduction in recidivism rates, Okonofua said.

During regular professional development workshops, parole and probation officers were given the option to complete the empathy training or search on the internet, according to Okonofua. Those who chose to do the training were randomized to receive either the treatment or a placebo control.

The empathy training included questions on why the officers chose their profession in the first place and the benefits of valuing the perspectives of their clients, Okonofua said. At the end, officers were asked to write a letter giving advice to a new probation or parole officer by drawing on ideas covered in the empathy modules.

Okonofua added that the questions in the training were deliberately framed to treat the officers as experts in their profession, rather than as recipients of treatment.

Additionally, the training’s effect on recidivism grew over the 10 month period and is predicted to continue growing the longer the training continues, according to Saadatian.

Due to the training’s cost efficiency and online nature, Okonofua believes the training has the potential to be distributed broadly and allow anyone with internet connection access to the survey. Okonofua said his team is open to working with any federal or state policy efforts to implement their training.

The study is “timely” as COVID-19 and continued efforts to reduce the number of people incarcerated in the United States has led to a large number of people released from prison and jail and entered into probation and parole, Okonofua said. Research, such as empathy training, is “important” in ensuring those people do not end up back in prison or jail, Okonofua added.

“We seem to spend a huge amount of money on incarcerating people,” Okonofua said. “It also seems to be the case that the way we have been going about it is not necessarily making those people, their families or our society better, but rather it could be making things worse.”

Contact Serene Chang at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @_serenechang .