Probation can lead to better public safety

Across the country, state leaders have recently passed laws to create more alternatives to prison when dealing with crimes committed by people struggling with addiction, mental health challenges, or those who made a bad decision at a low point in their life — for good reason: prison isolates people from their family; takes a mom or dad miles away from their child; and starkly removes any chance to engage with the community, hold a job and be self-sufficient.

Instead of prison, probation can be an effective, safe corrections tool.

ADVERTISEMENT

If individuals meet certain conditions, often set by a judge, and stay crime-free, they complete their sentence and move on. However, when supervision is administered poorly by government, it only serves to surveil wide swaths of people without any public safety pay off. People may be slapped with a severe prison sentence at the first missed appointment with a probation officer or failed drug test. Rather than providing an alternative to prison, probation often becomes a path leading to prison. Probationers who are revoked, or sent back to jail or prison for messing up on a condition of supervision or for committing a new offense, make up 55 percent of all admissions to Georgia’s prisons, and 61 percent of Rhode Island’s admissions.  

The Pew Charitable Trusts recently released findings showing that 4.5 million Americans are on probation and parole, twice those who are incarcerated.

There is also wide variation throughout the country in the supervision rate: in Utah, 1 in 134 of your neighbors are on probation or parole, while in Pennsylvania, 1 in 35 people are on supervision. This reach is too large when the system is not efficient and we are not seeing positive public safety outcomes.

The good news is that we have examples of state policy changes that have moved away from sweeping, boondoggle approaches to community corrections in favor of methods that deliver on the promise of public safety.   

In 2010, South Carolina restructured supervision to offer appropriate responses to success and failure on supervision. For example, if an individual meets his obligations during a specified time period, he can be swiftly rewarded with a waived fee, encouraging more of that behavior. Conversely, if an individual doesn’t comply with conditions, he is given a sanction proportional with the offense. It sounds simple, but this evidence-backed approach of incentives and sanctions reduced revocations to prison due to incompliance by 46 percent. People who began supervision post-reform are 33 percent less likely to be incarcerated after one year than those supervised prior to the system change.

In Missouri, officials adopted “earned discharge” which allows certain eligible groups on probation and parole to earn 30 days off their supervision sentence for every month of compliance. The supervised population fell by 18 percent, or nearly 13,000 people, between August 2012 and June 2015. Average caseloads for probation and parole officers dropped 16 percent, meaning these officers could spend more time on the toughest cases, those at a higher risk of committing another crime.

ADVERTISEMENT

State officials are often surprised when they look at their prison data and see many people end up in a prison bed, not for having committed a horrible crime, but for thumbing their nose at probation compliance. Our country’s geography is dotted with state facilities bonded and built for this poor behavior. To respond, Louisiana adopted caps on time served in prison for first-time violations of supervision. After this policy change, the average length of incarceration for these revocations declined by 281 days. At the same time revocations to prison for new crimes declined by 22 percent, meaning that public safety outcomes improved.

We as a country can double-down on these efforts, and make supervision an effective tool that doesn’t waste taxpayer dollars.

Probation and parole are often perceived as less punitive than prison, but the reality for many Americans is that supervision is a harsh sentence that extends for years and cycles them in and out of prison, without any path to redemption. These states have already shown that we can do better at successfully integrating individuals into a crime-free life while they stay at home with their families. It’s time to follow their lead.

Pat Nolan is the Director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation, a Right on Crime Signatory, and was formerly the Republican Leader of the California State Assembly.