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Can We Cut Probation Caseloads by 50 Percent?
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 09/11/2017

Probation officer There are a number of organizations that want drastic reductions in the correctional population including cutting the American prisonpopulation by fifty percent.

This discussion has continued for decades with little to show for advocacy efforts. Most Americans want accountability from people who have harmed us.

Advocates are convinced that violent offenders and multi-repeat felons can be released from prison or go unsupervised without harm to public safety, which is not supported by the best available data.

Recidivism-Most Released From Prison Go Back to Prison

The most common understanding of recidivism is based on data from the US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, stating that two-thirds (68 percent) of prisoners released were arrested for a new crime within three years of release from prison, and three-quarters (77 percent) were arrested within five years.

Within 3 years of release, 49.7% of inmates either had an arrest that resulted in a conviction with a disposition of a prison sentence or were returned to prison without a new conviction because they violated a technical condition of their release; as did 55.1% of inmates within 5 years of release, see Crime in America-Recidivism.

Note that the majority of criminal activity is not reported to police, most reported crimes do not end in arrest, and that significant numbers of reported criminal cases are not prosecuted, thus the numbers above are undercounts.

There are categories of people released from prison where 85 percent were arrested in three years.

The bottom line is that people caught up in criminal activity tend to continue their offending.

But We Are Talking About Probation

Recidivism Of Felons On Probation, 1986-89

To my knowledge, there is one major and definitive study (based on large numbers of offenders) on state probation recidivism. It focused solely on felony probationers.

Within 3 years 43% of state felons on probation were rearrested for a felony. Half of the arrests were for a violent crime (murder, rape, robbery, or aggravated assault) or a drug offense.

Results showed that within 3 years of sentencing, 62 percent either had a disciplinary hearing for violating a condition of their probation or were arrested for another felony.

In addition, within 3 years, 46 percent had been sent to prison or jail or had absconded.

Fifty-three percent had special conditions attached to their probation, most often drug testing, drug treatment, or alcohol treatment.

The financial penalties imposed on the probationers included victim restitution (29 percent), court costs (48 percent), and probation supervision fees (32 percent), USDOJ.

Most On Probation are Felons

Who is on probation? Felony cases went from 50 percent of the probation population in 2005 to 57 percent in 2015, which means that probation is handling a more challenging workload, Crime in America.

The Case for Cuts in Probation

The number of Americans on parole or probation can be “significantly” reduced without endangering public safety, a coalition of the country’s leading community corrections executives, criminologists and advocates said Monday.

“Increasingly sophisticated research has shown that we can responsibly reduce probation and parole probations…to both significantly reduce the footprint of probation and parole and improve outcomes and public safety,” declared a statement signed by 35 current and former community corrections executives along with 20 top advocacy organizations and a number of criminal justice thought leaders around the nation.

The statement was issued simultaneously with a blockbuster report published by the Executive Session on Community Corrections at Harvard University’s Kennedy School that laid out a roadmap for slashing the number of people under probation supervision by 50 percent(emphasis added) over the next decade.

The report said the American community corrections system, which was originally developed as an alternative to incarceration, has in fact become “one of the most significant drivers” of mass incarceration today. The Crime Report

So Who Is Right?

Advocates are going to ask for steep reductions in correctional populations because they are philosophically opposed to what they consider is an over-reliance on formal correctional sanctions.

Note that there have been reductions in the America correctional population, but by and large, those reductions remain small when looking at data over decades, Crime in America.

But there have been cuts:

There were 7,400,000 people under correctional supervision at its peak in 2007 and 6,741,000 people under correctional supervision in 2016 for a reduction of 659,000.

There were 786,000 people in local jails in at its peak in 2008 and 728,000 in 2015 for a reduction of 58,000.

There were 4,293,000 on probation in the peak year of 2007 and 3,790,000 in 2015 for a reduction of 503,000 people.

The prison population reached a historic high of 1,615,000 in 2009; currently, the number is 1,527,000 in 2015, a drop of 88,000.

With decades of declining crime (until recently), reductions were expected.

Can We Cut Probation Further?

Sure, but reductions come with public safety risks.

All anyone has to do is to look at prison and probation recidivism data to understand the risk.

Again, remember, most crime is not reported, most reported crimes do not end in an arrest, and substantial percentages of arrested crimes are not prosecuted, so the recidivism data cited is an undercount.

Also note that the state probation recidivism study only included felonies, not misdemeanors, thus the arrest rate for probationers would be much higher.

But Reductions Are Possible

The American criminal justice system is vastly underfunded which means that we cannot be all things to all people.

It probably is in our best interest to limit the number of people on probation simply because of the enormous number supervised by parole and probation agents; 200 offenders to one parole and probation agent ratios are not unusual.

Who do we cut? First, we need to divert all lower level and first-time offenders from the criminal justice system through specialty courts. For many minor offenses, we should warn and refer to social services.

Sentencing reform is necessary. Marijuana should be legalized or decriminalized. The possession of other drugs should be misdemeanors. There are endless “crimes” that involve questionable but not necessarily “criminal” behavior.

Multi-year sentences of probation should be eliminated. There are few (if any) who can comply with all the terms of probation over the course of two years or more.

Probation for all offenders should be limited to one year for successful compliance.

Judges should greatly limit special conditions. What they impose is often difficult to accomplish (i.e., employment, restitution, fines). What they impose is enforceable. Let parole and probation agencies assign special conditions as warranted.

Lower level offenders should be placed on kiosk supervision or a reporting schedule of once every six months.

There should be “allowances” for misbehavior. Not every offender will be employed. Not every offender will make his office visits as scheduled. They will move frequently and not report new addresses (i.e., they don’t want an officer showing up at the address of their girlfriend). Every indiscretion does not (and should not) mean revocation.

Note that mental illness is a condition of many (most?) offenders which mean that problems under supervision will be many, Crime in America. Social services are necessary to address mental health and extreme substance issues.

Bottom Line

So the bottom line is that we can “manage” the probation population by limiting interactions with lower level offenders.

But unlike the advocates, I’m not going to tell you that it’s without a risk to public safety. Parole and probation agencies can and do respond to problems (i.e., creating a nuisance in the community) that are an indicator of difficulties to come, regardless of supervision levels.

Those on parole and probation typically have numerous technical violations or new criminal charges. Thirty or more violations are not unusual. Most do not make restitution or pay fines or follow stay-away orders (observations are based on my 25 years of speaking for parole and probation agencies). There are an endless number of “successful” completions on supervision that involve partial compliance.

Most are heavily involved in mental health, and substance abuse issues, Crime in America, which means that “managing” them is a daunting undertaking.

But once again, the justice system cannot be all things to all people. Limiting interactions with lower level offenders provides the system with the ability to focus on those posing an obvious public safety risk.

Finally, we need to be honest. Whatever we do, we need to make sure that all citizens know what we are doing, and why.

Too often, parole and probation reforms are hidden from the public because we don’t want citizens and the media to know, simply because we are afraid they will not be supportive. If we make changes, we are obligated to be transparent. Let the chips fall where they may.

Reprinted with permission from http://www.crimeinamerica.net.

Contact us at crimeinamerica@gmail.com or for media on deadline, use leonardsipes@gmail.com.

Leonard A. Sipes, Jr has thirty-five years of experience supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. He is the Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and the Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. He has a Post Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of the book "Success With the Media". He can be reached via email at leonardsipes@gmail.com.


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