Empathy Training Psychology

Study: Empathy Training for Parole Officers May Reduce Offender Recidivism


Parole officers have a complicated job. They serve as the point of contact between a state’s department of corrections and recently released prisoners. Whether these prisoners were incarcerated for non-violent crimes like embezzlement or a violent crime like armed robbery, the parole officer must respect the parole board’s decision to release the prisoner. As a result, the parole officer cannot automatically look for reasons to send the parolee back to prison.

Instead, they often play many roles including:

  • Social worker
  • Counselor
  • Law enforcement officer

In these roles, the parole officer must monitor the parolee’s adaptation to society, compliance with the parole conditions, and adherence to the law.

A new study from UC Berkeley suggests that parole officers and parolees have more success when parole officers undergo empathy training. By applying the tenets of empathy training psychology, the parole officers can reduce parole violations and help the parolees under their supervision complete parole rather than going back to prison.

What Is the Goal of Empathy Training Psychology?

The goal of empathy training is for the trainee, in this case, the parole officer, to develop the ability to understand what parolees think and feel. This improves the relationship dynamic between the parole officers and the people they supervise by:

  • Promoting more meaningful interactions: By communicating on more than a verbal level, parole officers get more out of their interactions with parolees.
  • Better decision-making: Parole officers make better decisions about how to supervise parolees and when to issue a violation that will send them to jail or prison.

Empathy training psychology does not change the trainees’ approach simply by telling them to be more empathetic. Instead, it helps them recognize ways they can develop a more empathetic approach to life and their work.

How Is Empathy Training Psychology Implemented?

Some empathy training steps include:

  • Bias recognition: Instead of viewing the world through their own assumptions, trainees learn to observe others, listen to them, and develop an understanding based on what is actually happening rather than what they believe to be happening. For example, parole officers were trained to disregard their assumptions that people who commit crimes are bad people and that certain people, like poor, minority people, are predisposed to a life of crime.
  • Trigger values and purpose: Rather than focusing on the day-to-day drudgery of the job, trainees learned to recognize the parts of the job that gave them the greatest satisfaction, such as seeing a parolee complete parole successfully or helping a parolee find a job. This recognition pushes the parole officers to pursue the aspects ot the job that give them satisfaction and police their peers who do not share their values and purpose.
  • Becoming self-aware: Self-awareness is essential for anyone to develop empathy. Before you can understand someone else’s thoughts and feelings, you need to understand your own thoughts and feelings. Once you understand how you react to a situation, you can understand how someone else would react in the same situation. Ultimately, the goal is to develop an intuition for understanding other people’s thoughts and feelings without needing them to verbalize them for you. For example, suppose a parolee nearly broke her parole by trying to buy a gun in a firearm sale. Through empathy training, you might understand that living in the only apartment she could afford might put her in a rough neighborhood where a gun might make her feel safer.
  • Taking responsibility: Trainees must understand the interconnectedness of their relationships. What they do and how they interact with their parolees affects how the parolees behave, and vice versa. They also have a responsibility for how their peers behave and abuses of authority by other parole officers not only reflect on them but standing by and allowing abuses to happen is an abuse in itself. By triggering a sense of responsibility, parole officers police themselves and their peers better.
  • Social effectiveness: To have an effective influence on someone, you need to bring certain values to the relationship. Key among these values is respect. Without respect for the parolees, parole officers risk treating them as lesser and the entire training model breaks down. It is very difficult to empathize with someone who you look down on, or do not have respect for. As a result, you begin to divide the world into us — those who you respect and can empathize with — and them — those who you do not respect and cannot empathize with.
  • Anger management: You cannot act with empathy when your overriding emotion is anger. As a result, trainees have to approach situations with your emotions in check. For example, a parolee who relapses after opioid treatment with medication assistance did not relapse to disrespect the parole officer and anger will not solve the problem. Instead, the parole officer has to listen to the parolee and understand the reasons for the relapse. Only then can the parole officer help the parolee avoid the next relapse.
  • Working cooperatively: Once the parolee is viewed with respect, the parole officer can develop a cooperative relationship with the parolee instead of simply ordering the parolee around. The parole officer and the parolee each have a role to fulfill during the supervision period, and they can work together to reach the goal of completing the parole successfully.

How Does Empathy Training Psychology Help With Specific Situations?

Parolees are always responsible for their own actions. But when a parole officer understands their thoughts and feelings, they can understand what might motivate those actions and help them to avoid violating their parole.

For example, parolees might miss their old friends who they have not seen since they went to prison. It might be natural for the parolee to want to hang out with their old friends after being released. But these old friends might also be the people the parolee got into trouble with. The parole officer can try to counsel the parolee to avoid their old friends and old hangouts for their own good. This would likely be more effective than threatening the parolee with prison if the parole officer catches them in their old neighborhood.

Similarly, reminding the parolee of the impact of their actions on their family might be a greater deterrent than threatening to hit them with a parole violation. The family likely went through a lot due to the parolee’s arrest and conviction from having to scrape together money to pay the bail bondsmen to going without seeing the parolee for months or years.

Here are some specific examples of where empathy training psychology could help both a parole officer and parolee reach the goal of successful completion.

Empathy Training Psychology and Finding Work

Without empathy training psychology, a parole officer might assume that a parolee who does not work is simply lazy or making money illegally. Since a common condition of parole is employment or education, the parole officer might threaten the parolee with a parole violation if they do not get a job within a specified period of time. When the parolee fails to secure employment, the parole officer feels like the parolee defied him or failed to respect the threat. As a result, the parole officer has no choice but to arrest the parolee for a parole violation to assert himself in the relationship.

After empathy training psychology, the parole officer might intuitively understand that many employers will not hire people with felony convictions. If the parolee has stopped looking for work, it might not be out of defiance or disrespect, but out of frustration at not finding a job. Rather than threatening the parolee with a violation, the parole officer might send the parolee to the local job services office. The parole officer might counsel the parolee to look at attainable jobs rather than a job like unarmed security guard where a criminal history automatically disqualifies the parolee.

By overcoming biases and developing an intuitive understanding of the parolee’s difficulties finding a job, the parole officer can approach job hunting constructively instead of creating a path back to prison.

Empathy Training Psychology and Addiction

Addiction is a difficult problem to deal with, particularly for someone who has no addictions. But empathizing with someone with drug or alcohol addictions is possible. And in the case of parole officers, empathizing with people with addictions is necessary to do their jobs effectively.

According to the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse, 65% of prisoners have a drug or alcohol addiction. This means that the majority of parolees supervised by a parole officer will have a substance use disorder. Ensuring that the parolees attend treatment and stay clean is a full-time job in itself.

Before training, a parole officer might be biased to believe that addicts and alcoholics are untreatable and will always relapse. The parole officer might view his job as catching them in the act. The parole officer might create an adversarial environment where the parolee does not feel able to talk about the parolee’s struggles with addiction. Instead, the parolee will feel like whitewashing or hiding the parolee’s struggles is the best course to avoiding a parole violation. As a result, neither the parole officer nor the parolee is working on the addiction issue.

After training, a parole officer might understand that having an open door to discussing the parolee’s addiction issues can help to prevent a relapse. Instead of hiding it, the parolee might trust the parole officer enough to ask for help when the urge to drink or use drugs strikes and the parole officer might be empathetic enough to help the parolee find a meeting or treatment center to help the parolee.

And instead of arresting the parolee for failing a drug test or, worse yet, hitting the parolee with new charges if the parole officer finds out about a relapse, the parole officer might look for a reason for the relapse. This saves the parolee, the probation officer, and the parolee’s criminal defense lawyer time, effort, and money prosecuting a new case.

This is not to say that the parole officer must become a pushover and sweep problematic behavior under the rug. But the parole officer should not assume that a relapse is an act that disqualifies the parolee from parole. Instead, the parole officer should determine if there is an underlying problem that can be solved, so the parolee can live in society without using drugs or alcohol.

Empathy Training Psychology and Money

Parole puts a lot of financial pressure on parolees. Most states require parolees to pay supervision fees. Additionally, the parolee might have a past bill for fines, restitution, lawyers fees, and incarceration costs that must be paid off before the parole can be terminated. As if this were not enough, the parolee must pay rent, buy food, and secure transportation to survive.

To make things worse, many employers will not hire workers who have a felony conviction or are currently on parole. Some employers might not hire workers with any conviction or convictions of a certain type. For example, retail stores often refuse to hire anyone with a theft arrest and healthcare workers usually cannot have an assault arrest in their criminal background check.

Before training, a parole officer might hound a parolee about paying off the fines, restitution, and incarceration, and keeping up on supervision fees. The parole officer might even threaten the parolee with a violation if the parolee falls behind on the supervision fees.

After training, a parole officer might understand how overwhelming the fees are to someone who has been incarcerated and out of work. The parole officer might help the parolee find ways to minimize the parolee’s expenses, like pairing a parolee up with another parolee to share an apartment.

Empathy training psychology might seem like a soft-on-crime approach to parole. But it shows real reductions in parole violations and re-offense. As a result, parole agencies should look at whether it can help their officers and parolees.

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