Within the broad sphere of the criminal justice system, it is perhaps understandable that physical entities — predominantly state prisons, but also increasingly county jails — have received most of the scrutiny among the reform-minded. Rapid growth in prison and jail populations, driven in large part by “tough on crime” sentencing policies that emphasized carceral sanctions for wrongdoing, have long necessitated construction of such correctional facilities to house offenders.
But while governments have been singularly effective at simple warehousing — for example, federal prison populations leapt by 790 percent between 1980 and their peak in 2013 — they can’t point to any particular return on public safety, as recidivism rates nationwide have remained stubbornly high. In light of this generational inadequacy, policies that encourage incarceration over potentially better-performing alternatives have been targeted for reform.
Enter probation. A form of community supervision, probation involves deferring or suspending an individual’s sentence until after a term of supervision is successfully completed. During this supervision, the individual is expected to remain crime-free and to fulfill various requirements of the court, including regular check-ins with probation officers, routine drug tests, and participation in substance abuse or mental health treatment programs. Such supervision acts as a significant incentive to stay within the color of the law going forward, as failing to comply can result in punishment, including revocation to prison.
Various data bears out this “carrot and stick” approach. For example, in Harris County, Texas, which includes the Houston metro area, those sentenced to community supervision are substantially less likely to be rearrested 16 months after release than those sentenced to state jail. Furthermore, the costs associated with supervising people in the community are far less than the cost of incarceration as well.
Probation generally performs better than imprisonment, but it’s not without its own challenges. To wit, America’s probation population is roughly twice the number of those imprisoned, which puts an enormous strain on probation departments’ ability to carry out their important mission.
As a new report from the Texas Public Policy Foundation highlights, many of the broader challenges that probation departments face can be traced to the way that they are funded — usually based upon the number of people being supervised at any given time. While this is reasonable on its face, such a mechanism is ultimately less concerned with positive outcomes as it is with keeping the gravy train fueled. Put another way, it implicitly incentivizes ongoing supervision of people for longer than their circumstances may require to maintain funding levels, which leads to bloated caseloads and, paradoxically, the potential to actually increase the likelihood of recidivism.
Fortunately, some states have settled upon a more effectual path by adopting performance-based probation funding models. Money is distributed not based upon the size of its supervised population, but instead upon their ability to create new community supervision capacity to begin with or upon the reduction of revocations back to prison (a perennial driver of prison admissions in many areas).
Illinois’ “Redeploy” program, an example of the former, incentivizes local jurisdictions to divert non-violent offenders from prison by expanding more cost-effective, community-based services. Created in 2009, the program has delivered on its intended purpose: over 3,000 probationers have been diverted into supervision — who would otherwise have remained in prison — where they receive treatment for drug addiction, mental health issues, or other behavioral maladies. In turn, this can reduce recidivism and foster closer ties with their families.
Meanwhile, Arizona’s “Safe Communities Act” (SCA) was predicated upon reducing revocations to prison, which at one point accounted for one-third of its prison admissions. SCA required that up to 40 percent of state savings realized from reducing the number of individuals revoked from probation into a state prison be appropriated to a county’s adult probation office when they reduced the number of technical violations or new convictions. Once again, SCA delivered, as there was a nearly 28 percent decrease in the number of revocations to Arizona prisons in the three years following implementation.
Unfortunately, the funding mechanism was repealed due to budget restraints before counties ever received its portion of savings, but an important principle still holds: like people, entire systems will respond to incentives. Arizona lawmakers should make a renewed commitment to this successful probation model.
States across the country have shown that by providing results-oriented funding to local probation departments, jurisdictions can — and usually do — respond by innovating or adopting new practices to reduce the likelihood of supervision failure and revocation to state lockups. In turn, taxpayer costs can be restrained while realizing greater returns in public safety and, ultimately, confidence in our institutions. As experience has shown, however, follow-through is the key.
Michael Haugen is a policy analyst with the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Right on Crime initiative. Follow Michael on Twitter at @HaugenATX