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Telling The Truth About Parole and Probation
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 02/04/2019

Paroled How about an article that will make all sides upset?

Discussions as to crime policy are almost impossible because people can’t agree on basic facts. Per Pew, it’s important for criminal justice policymakers and practitioners to understand that few Americans agree on the basics of any national issue, Crime in America.

For example, there is no national consensus as to what we want parole and probation to do. It’s all a matter of opinion and politics. The only thing that separates fact from fiction is data.

When I became the Director of Public Information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety, one of my twelve agencies was the Maryland Division of Parole and Probation.

When I asked the director what the purpose of parole and probation was, he replied that it was to enforce the dictates of the courts and parole commission. There was no mention of reduced recidivism or crime control or the provision of services.

I discussed this conversation with the Secretary of Public Safety who asked, “Just what the hell am I getting for my millions of dollars invested?” He suggested that parole and probation was adrift without a clear mission or purpose beyond an inexpensive way to process millions of offenders. Seventy percent of our prison intakes were violators from parole and probation.

I’m not quite sure community supervision has progressed far beyond this discussion.

So What’s The Purpose of Parole and Probation?

Research hasn’t been kind to community supervision. I’ll summarize; the vast majority of the data suggests that little, if anything, works to meaningfully reduce recidivism, Crime in America.

The bottom line is that parole and probation is an inexpensive method of supervising millions of people convicted of crimes.

There are four articles below from The Crime Report that were offered on the same day. The first three called for fundamental changes and then, boom, an article suggesting that the vast majority of violent offenders are rearrested. Every report on released offenders states that the vast majority are rearrested, five out of six over time, Crime in America.

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.

Programs either don’t work or, when they do, have marginal results of ten percent or less, Crime in America. Intensive or enhanced supervision simply revokes more people

To my knowledge, the only program with a track record of success is GPS or satellite supervision, Crime in America.

If the results are this bad, it means that the system has failed to articulate a clear vision and funds for community supervision.

What Needs To Happen

There needs to be a national commission and research agenda similar to cancer to suggest purpose and changes. Nothing is going to change unless administrators are given cover or justifications, see the National Institute of Justice for a new research agenda.

What people are going to have to come to grips with is the fact that community supervision is failing; it has no clear purpose.

Given the data on mental health, behavioral problems, substance abuse, brain injuries, PTSD, child abuse and neglect and trauma, and throw in educational and occupational deficiencies, Crime in America, this is an extremely difficult population to “fix.” The data on programs illustrate this point.

So first, we have to admit that we are failing as to purpose and results.

Second, we have to address accountability. Offenders on supervision need to be held accountable for their actions. The question is the degree of accountability. We speak endlessly of “alternative sanctions” for violations when most offenders are simply counseled.

States declare improved rates of recidivism that are unsupported by research. Per parole and probation agents in endless social media posts, agencies are simply raising the bar as to what constitutes failure, Crime in America.

We have been endlessly told by advocates for less incarceration that technical violations (not new crimes) were driving returns to prison. Per data from the US Sentencing Commission studying federal offenders, 99% of prisoners who were arrested during the 9-year follow-up period were arrested for an offense other than a probation or parole violation. They may be returned to prison for a technical violation (it’s easier to prove), but it’s probable that the root cause of that return is a new crime, Crime in America.


But if we hold every offender to strict adherence to the conditions of their parole and probation, we will simply send most back to the courts and the parole commission and prison (or some form of detention). Per data, the more you watch them, the more you violate them, Crime in America.

If that happens, governors will become apoplectic. It will break state or local budgets. Even conservatives believe that too many are returned to prison.

We have to acknowledge that most on supervision fail (to some degree) and prison can’t be the only outcome; states and counties can’t afford it.

We don’t fund programs because of the dismal results, and with 150 to 1 supervision ratios, agents don’t have the time or ability to meaningfully intervene in the lives of offenders.

We need to focus on the most dangerous (yes, we have a hard time establishing risk) and come to grips with shorter and lighter forms of supervision for the rest. One year of supervision for compliant offenders is one example. Mother Teresa would have a difficult time surviving high levels of supervision beyond one year.

As to those presenting the greatest risk to public safety, we have to acknowledge that most will be rearrested over time. It seems inevitable that many will return to some form of incarceration. The arrest records and/or current charges of the most dangerous, even after routine plea bargaining, are often astounding. Not holding them accountable seems dangerously misguided.

But for the sixty percent of offenders who don’t fall into this category, we are probably going to have to let them slide except for new felony arrests. The sixty percent will include felons, categories of child sex and adult sex offenders, and many repeat criminals. The victim’s community, #metoo, law enforcement, and society will probably be appalled.

But telling the public that we are holding offenders accountable when we’re not is simply dishonest.

Truth in Supervision

Here’s an honest message to the public: nothing works or nothing works well (except GPS tracking), incarcerating every failure on community supervision will break budgets and dramatically raise your taxes, we can’t “fix” people with severe deficiencies without an enormous infusion of funds and even then, success will be difficult, and we are going to have to lessen terms of community supervision for most and accountability will be less-much less.

Yes, I can provide anecdotal examples of endless offenders who did well on community supervision, but they make up a limited percentage of outcomes.

GPS or satellite supervision may be the most effective program we have for high-risk people, but to do it well, it will be an expensive proposition.

For those deemed to be dangerous, we may have to resort to incarceration when they don’t comply, and many won’t. It may raise your taxes.

Anything else beyond the above is simply disingenuous.

If we can’t start with the truth, we are the problem, not the solution.

Background Articles From The Crime Report

Meek Mill Launches $50 Million Crusade for Justice
The hip-hop superstar may be the most famous American caught in a byzantine system of probation and parole that can send former incarcerees back to prison for “technical offenses.” With support from wealthy friends in the sports, finance and entertainment worlds, he’s now spearheading a movement to develop alternatives. The Crime Report

Do We Really Need Probation and Parole?
As initiatives like the REFORM Alliance surge forward, it is important that they take an elemental, rather than incremental, approach to reforming probation and parole. Activists should ask how much, if at all, we need to employ government workers to watch those who have broken the law, writes a former New York probation commissioner. The Crime Report

Life After Prison: Nebraska’s ‘Growing Pains” With Probation Reform
Nebraska began shifting more inmates into stricter post-release supervision regimes to relieve prison overcrowding after legislators passed a sentencing reform package in 2015. But it’s added a new burden to already-stressed local jails and courts. The Crime Report

64% Recidivism By Violent Federal Offenders in 8 Years
Nearly 64 percent of federal offenders who had been convicted of violent offenses and were released in 2005 were rearrested for a new crime or for a violation of their supervision conditions within the next eight years, the U.S. Sentencing Commission reports. that compared to a rearrest rate of 39.9 percent by nonviolent offenders. The Crime Report

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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