The U.S. probation and parole system, generally referred to as community supervision, is at a crossroads.
An analysis of research gathered by Pew Charitable Trusts and Arnold Ventures, shows that since 1980 the population under community supervision has grown 239 percent. Today, 4.5 million Americans are under probation or parole—larger than the combined population of the country’s jails and prisons.
And nearly a third of the roughly 2.3 million individuals currently on probation every year fail to successfully complete their supervision requirements and wind up back in prison again, often not even for committing new crimes.
In response to what many experts have called “revolving-door justice,” members of the criminal justice community, as well as politicians, advocacy groups and celebrities, are calling for a radically different approach to probation and parole.
It would abandon the unnecessarily punitive aspects of the system and, instead, embrace a far more rehabilitative methodology and ethos.
“If we really want people who have run afoul of the law to make it, we need a watershed rethinking of community supervision,” said Vincent Schiraldi, Co-Director of the Columbia Justice Lab.
A former New York City probation commissioner, Schiraldi points out that today’s system of community supervision, with its focus on heavy fines, penalties and even jail time for minor non-criminal infractions, is a radical departure from the original philosophy of probation and parole.
That philosophy, he argued, was rooted in the kind of rehabilitation ethic that’s notably missing in the current system.
“In the 1840s, the U.S. version of probation was started by a Boston shoemaker, John Augustus, who was in a temperance society in Boston,” Schiraldi told The Crime Report. “He and eventually several of his fellow temperance movement buddies just started going down and posting bail for people who were facing sentencing.
“They would say, ‘let us work with this guy for a little bit and we’ll bring him back a changed man.’”
The U.S. version of parole started in 1876 with a similar ethic. Its architect, Zebulon Brockway, warden of the Elmira (N.Y.) Correctional Facility, “thought that people who play by the rules in prison should be released earlier than those who give a hard time,” Schiraldi said.
“It was conditional release. If they played by the rules in the community, they’d be OK.”
And while Schiraldi acknowledges that probation and parole were always conditional, he maintains that the essence of both, while imperfect, was originally rehabilitative and characterized by “mercy.”
But by the 1970s, when the country moved towards a more aggressive approach fueled by the “war on drugs,” such an approach had virtually disappeared.
According to theconversation.com, Congress began to lengthen prison sentences in the mid-1970s, culminating in the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act establishing mandatory minimums and eliminating federal parole. From 1985 to 1992, city, state and federal legislators lengthened drug sentences as part of the war on drugs, passing the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and setting a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for offenses involving low-quantity drug possession.
Capping the punitive approach, in the early 1990s, “three strikes laws” were instituted, sentencing anyone with two prior convictions to life without parole.
By then, parole and probation took on the characteristics of the prisons they had once functioned to keep people out of, Schiraldi said.
“All sorts of trappings of imprisonment started being attached to probation and parole supervision,” said Schiraldi.
“They started calling themselves community corrections, opening up boot camps, putting electronic monitors on people. Officers started carrying guns. And the number of conditions people had to abide by mushroomed.”
“Add-Ons” to Prison
As a result of the more punitive measures, probation and parole have become add-ons to prison instead of being alternatives, and they are employed in a manner that effectively punishes former inmates by sending them through a revolving door that denies them the ability to ever start over.
A recent study by the Prison Policy Initiative found that nearly 350,000 people are shifted from community supervision to prison or jail each year, often for low-level offenses (such as drug use) or technical violations (such as breaking curfew).
The study also stressed that current probation and parole policies ignore the realities of drug addiction and relapse, unemployment, and homelessness—effectively criminalizing marginalized populations who struggle with these problems daily.
According to Jenna Moll, Deputy Director of the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Action Network, the issue of technical violations may be one of the easiest problems to fix.
“The number-one thing that a state or probation system could do is throw out that standard set of conditions that they give to everyone,” Moll said in an interview.
According to a report by the United States Courts, a person on parole must comply with roughly 20 different conditions ordered by the court. These can include: residential restrictions, scheduled meetings with a probation/parole officer, drug testing, required counseling and treatment for addiction or mental illness, supervision fees, and association and contact restrictions.
Moll pointed out that a vast majority of these kinds of conditions are totally irrelevant to individual cases.
“If you have someone who has been arrested for parking fines, with no history of substance abuse, [and] no evidence of any addiction issues, whatsoever, forcing that person to go to weekly or monthly drug tests is a huge waste of time,” said Moll.
In fact, recent research and interviews of criminal justice stakeholders around the country by the Robina Institute suggested that many conditions were ordered arbitrarily, that conditions were not individualized to individual risk and needs, and that many states simply rely on a general list of conditions that is applied to all probationers regardless of their offense.
The consequences are exemplified in states like Pennsylvania, where a 2017 report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that roughly one-third of prisoners in the state are in prison for probation or parole violations.
Or New York, where according to a 2018 report from the Columbia University Justice Lab, the number of people held in prison for technical parole violations has increased by 15 percent.
As a result, resources are being wasted.
“We spent $2.8 billion as a country in 2017 on technical violations of probation and parole,” said Schiraldi.
“If we reduce substantially the number of people who are violating, we can capture that money and use it to help them with employment, housing, mental health issues, substance abuse, and education.”
A New EXiT Strategy
In an effort to do this, Schiraldi, along with more than 60 other probation and parole chiefs from around the country, recently launched EXiT (Executives Transforming Probation & Parole) to reduce the number of people under community supervision, make it less punitive, and more equitable, restorative and hopeful.
With a list of specific reforms such as reducing the number of violations, eliminating incarceration for violations, prioritizing services and support over surveillance and supervision, establishing reasonable parole and probation terms that are not unnecessarily long, and supporting probation and parole staff with training and resources, Schiraldi and his fellow advocates hope to inspire more groups like theirs to raise these issues and change the culture of probation and parole for the better.
“The willingness to give people who’ve committed crimes a break has eroded,” said Schiraldi.
“We need to get back there. People on parole and probation need a helping hand.”
Some states are already reaching out.
In Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh City Paper reports that the REFORM Alliance, an advocacy group partnered with business, government, and cultural leaders committed to changing mass supervision laws, is advocating for House Bill 1555 and Senate Bill 14.
The bills would impose caps on probation terms, limit prison time for convicted misdemeanors, eliminate or limit vague probation conditions, and reward people for good behavior by lowering probation sentences.
In Oklahoma, the state Pardon and Parole Board has established a streamlined parole process that cuts out two of the standard parts of parole: the pre-review investigation and the appearance before the board, according to Oklahoma Watch. This would effectively reduce the time offenders may spend on probation or parole, and could potentially save the state $16.7 million a year.
According to governing.com, similar laws have been enacted in Michigan and South Dakota that minimize punishments for technical violations, and allow judges to shorten probation time for good behavior.
“If the corrections industry is truly about correcting behaviors, or helping people get on the correct path, the goal should be reducing the numbers of people in it,” said Jeff Coots, director of the From Punishment to Public Health initiative, a consortium of academic, policy and direct service organizations based at John Jay College.
“If you’re violating one of the rules of probation or parole that is not a criminal behavior, then you shouldn’t necessarily get locked up again.”
Coots points to reforms like graduated sanctions, community-based interventions that are imposed in response to a probationer or parolees technical violation in lieu of incarceration, as well as making sure penalties are specific and to scale with the infraction committed, as positive steps towards lowering populations in both community supervision and prisons.
“It’s not if you miss a meeting you get locked up,” said Coots.
“It’s ‘if you miss a meeting, maybe for the next month you’re going to have some additional restrictions placed on you until you get back on track.’ ”
In fact, a 2017 report by the Urban Institute found that South Carolina, following the adoption of a 2010 law that required training on and implementation of graduated sanctions, experienced a 46 percent drop in the number of revocations to jail or prison from 2010-2015.
And, according to a report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, based on current best practices, using incentives and graduated sanctions, assessing probationer’s risks and needs, and tailoring supervision strategies to suit the probationer are all keys to reducing recidivism.
“If we could just take a step back and really start to look at probation and say how much supervision does this person need vs. this person, and really refocus resources in a smarter way, we’re going to get way better outcomes,” said Jenna Moll.
Assessing probationers’ risks and needs in this more dynamic way accounts for an individual’s specific circumstances, be it drug addiction, homelessness, unemployment or poverty, and allows probation and parole agencies to make more informed decisions on the best course of action that keeps people moving forward through the system and out of prison.
In Virginia, a 2017 analysis of risk assessment practices by the Center For Court Innovation notes that the use of a validated risk tool in multiple jurisdictions allowed for the diversion of 25 percent of nonviolent, prison bound offenders over a three-year period without increasing crime.
While proper assessment helps make sure the right people are receiving the right supervision, incentives help to motivate them forward through the program. Ranging from verbal recognition to early discharge from supervision, incentives reinforce positive behavior among probationers and parolees in the same way that sanctions deter unwanted behavior.
“The biggest part of it is providing a system of incentives for those sentenced to probation that really encourages them to not only comply with the standard conditions, but to exceed them, go further, and do more,” said Moll.
In fact, while it notes that they work best together, a 2013 report by the American Probation and Parole Association actually recommends that, to be most effective, correctional interventions with individuals involved in the justice system should consist of positive reinforcements that outnumber sanctions or punishments if offenders are to succeed and move on with their lives.
“Getting a better job, making better choices, and continuing to grow and pursue productive, law abiding lives. Incentives really are effective at encouraging this behavior and making sure that it sticks,” said Moll.
However, making sure that both sanctions and incentives are applied effectively and appropriately depends highly on the use of a validated risk-and-needs assessment instrument (RNA).
The most prominent framework for an RNA is the Risk-Needs-Responsivity model (RNR), which identifies three principles for addressing offender recidivism: assessing risk, addressing criminogenic needs, and providing treatment that is responsive to the offender’s abilities and learning style.
A report by the National Center for State Courts emphasizes that, while adhering to any one of these principles results in a reduction in recidivism, and that abiding by all three can result in a 26 percent recidivism reduction overall, it also stresses that risk-and-needs systems are not flawless.
A 2018 analysis by the Congressional Research Service reports that, even under the best conditions, risk assessment can correctly predict recidivism roughly 70 percent of the time. And a 2019 study by the Center for Court Innovation found that risk assessment instruments have a very real potential to perpetuate racial disparities in jurisdictions where black, Hispanic, or other ethnic groups have disproportionate contact with the justice system.
To avoid the problem of bias, and ensure high rates of accuracy, both research groups recommend that risk assessment instruments be created and maintained through a rigorous cycle of data collection and analysis, evidence-based, research-supported practices, up-to-date administration training for assessors and officers, and regular adjustments to the system itself or the way it is being used.
“Having a view of the data in that feedback loop could make every component of the system more informed,” said Moll.
Unfortunately, according to West Huddleston, former Chief Executive Officer of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, staying informed on the necessary data is nearly impossible for those working in the trenches of a system that is organizationally and technically behind the times.
In fact, a 2014 report by the RAND Corporation identified innovation in information and technology among the top tier of high-priority needs for improving U.S. community corrections efforts.
“Until recently there has been no technology that speeds up client data to be brought in front of the officer so that they know the whole story of the client when they see them,” said Huddleston.
Huddleston, a 25-year career veteran of the criminal justice system, working in both corrections and probation and parole, as well two early drug courts, insists that today’s probation and parole officers operate without the proper software to supply them the data they need for good decision-making.
“From an officer perspective, it is next to impossible for them to know what is happening with their clients in real time,” said Huddleston, who is now a Vice President and General Manager of SCRAM Systems, an industry leader in cutting-edge alcohol- and location-monitoring technologies for criminal justice.
“50 percent of a probation officer’s time is sucked up by trying to find out from outside treatment providers, drug test labs, the courts, even the clients themselves, how the client is doing and then manually entering it into a case note, which is a static piece of info, in the case management system.”
According to a 2017 survey of the daily activities of probation officers in 24 county-level probation departments over one month by Probation Journal, officers spend on average, per offender, between two and nearly four hours on risk assessments, five to six hours on pre-sentence investigation reports, and up to an hour or more completing a myriad of supervision tasks like collecting payments, drug screenings, dealing with child protective services, and completing referrals and progress reports.
“The fact that officers spend half of their time, on average, doing administrative work leaves no time to do those evidence based practices that officers need to engage their clients and improve client outcomes,” said Huddleston.
“That can be fixed with modern technology.”
SCRAM Systems has spent the last four years inventing that technology.
Called “Nexus,” the program is a dynamic decision support engine for probation and parole officers that will, according to Huddleston, help officers get out of the job of hunting down client info, inform them on what’s going on with their client in real time, and advise the officer on how best to respond to them.
“Nexus does a couple of things that have never been done before in community corrections, but have been done in medicine or even sports,” said Huddleston.
“For example, we’ve created portals for treatment providers to report the attendance and progress of clients in real time back to Nexus. Then, Nexus analyzes that progress and that attendance, synthesizes it with drug test results, with risk and need levels of the client, and recommends to the officer how to respond to that client based on that risk and need level.”
The program would do the thinking for the officer and assist them in delivering intermediate sanctions, interventions, and, more importantly, positive reinforcement when clients do well. By guiding officers through a list of evidence based response options for any situation, Nexus could enable officers to make the best decisions for the right people.
“If technology supported officer decision making through an automated decision tree on how to respond to client behavior, then we could make a lot of progress,” said Huddleston.
Using technology like Nexus in probation and parole could also increase visibility and accountability in an industry that too often allows officers to make decisions based on their own “gut instincts,” while operating behind closed doors.
A 2014 report by the United States Courts found that probation officers in a Mountain-West region of the U.S. often disregarded procedure in favor of what their gut told them to do. These same officers admitted to frequently ignoring reports outlining individual case details, forming opinions based on their personal interactions with the probationer, and making decisions based on how well they could relate to their circumstances alone.
In addition, a 2018 study for the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, in a survey of 75 Australian probation and parole staff, found that:
- Roughly 33 percent reported completing assessments carelessly;
- 25 percent minimized, exaggerated, or manipulated assessment information;
- 78 percent admitted to frequently targeting criminogenic needs not identified in assessments; and
- 44 percent reported sometimes ignoring the recommended assessment needs entirely.
“Technology (like Nexus) shines a bright light on that,” said Huddleston.
“Our system not only recommends to the officer how to respond to client behavior, but then the officer has to document through our dashboard workflow what they actually did.”
This type of automated oversight would ideally expose the problems and successes that were occurring in any probation and parole program: highlighting both good and bad policies or practices as well as flagging any officers exhibiting bias or negativity in their actions towards offenders. It would provide an opportunity for the kind of transparency the industry needs to improve.
“Now you can know how different client profiles and risk levels are being treated by different officers and units and treatment providers,” said Huddleston.
“You have visibility.”
However, according to Government Technology, while it appears promising, Nexus is currently only being piloted in El Dorado County, Ca., Santa Barbara County, Ca., Columbia County, Ny., and Miami County, Ind., and has yet to acquire enough data for proper analytics. Even if it were to be launched nationwide today, the system is far from a cure-all to the problems currently facing probation and parole.
Overworked Officers, Outdated Tech
Not only is there a lack of transparency, outdated technology, and a finite amount of usable accurate data, but today’s probation and parole officers also find themselves facing overwhelming caseloads, high stress and fatigue, and safety threats .
In Pennsylvania, according to a brief by the House Appropriations Committee, each county probation officer actively supervises 113 people at any given time. In Georgia, the Council of State Governments reports that, despite reforms, the caseload per officer is 130 individuals.
In Alabama, it’s 110.
A survey from the National Institute of Justice, a sub-agency of the U.S. Justice Department, found that 39 percent to 55 percent of officers in four states experienced work-related violence or threats. And a 2012 study by the Southern Criminal Justice Association found that career officers who regularly experienced traumatic incidents like workplace violence and threats, coupled with heavy caseloads, demonstrated higher rates of “compassion fatigue,” safety concerns, mistrust, sexual issues, and family problems.
The longer the career, the greater the traumatic stress.
“The workers deal with a shrinking social safety net, a more punitive attitude by society, fewer resources, higher case loads, and an environment less welcoming to people who have committed crimes,” said Vincent Schiraldi.
“Add those factors up and you should expect higher rates of return to incarceration by the people charged with the duty of enforcing the rule.”
Added Jeff Coots: “It can be tough to maintain good morale just by the nature of the work that you do,”
“It wears on officers both on a client basis and on an existential level.”
Improving morale goes hand in hand with improving results.
By eliminating petty violations, implementing graduated sanctions and incentives for good and bad behavior, and generally turning the industry towards support and rehabilitation, offenders will become more motivated to improve and work their way through a system that offers a helping hand instead of a punitive one.
The potential of technology like Nexus to increase accountability and transparency, and provide officers with up-to-date evidence-based information, promises to create a system where officers make the right decisions and see the results in real time.
“If in every case that they deal with they see the outcome, good and bad, they’re going to have a lot better sense of what went right, what went wrong, and how we can do better,” said Jenna Moll.
“It will give everyone a chance to celebrate the successes, including the probation officers. When they do it right, we all win.”
And while Nexus is still in its fledgling state, probation departments around the country are also employing smartphone apps to allow officers to better connect with and monitor their clients and installing automated kiosks to streamline check-ins for low level offenders and better manage heavy caseloads so that officers can give the most attention to the people that really need it.
“We need to do better for our citizens and help them get treatment, other services, and get out of this criminal justice system,” said Huddleston.
And while it will take time, all agree that changing the culture of probation and parole is the key to changing the lives of everyone involved in the system.
Isidoro Rodriguez is a contributing writer to The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.