Recidivism’s Hidden Drivers: ‘Technical Violations’ of Probation or Parole

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More than a quarter of the 600,000 Americans who are reincarcerated each year are sent back to prison because they have committed “technical violations” of their terms of probation or parole—not because they have committed new crimes.

The high percentage of such violations, for behaviors like staying out past curfew or missing an appointment with a parole officer, raises uncomfortable questions about the goals and purposes of the country’s system of community supervision, say researchers at Florida State University (FSU).

In the sixth of a series of quarterly studies examining “re-arrests” in seven states, researchers at the Institute for Justice, Research and Development at FSU’s College of Social Work argued that the nation’s high rates of recidivism bear little relation to the prevalence of criminal behavior among inmates released from prison.

“Our data suggests that people may be returning to incarceration for reasons community members may not find acceptable,” said the study authors, noting that reincarceration triggers “cascading consequences” that have a negative impact on the lives of individuals who might otherwise be on a path towards reintegrating into civil society.

“These consequences affect individuals who lose employment, housing, transportation, material goods, money, time, and momentum.”

The impact is equally traumatic on children whose parents are returned to prison “and must endure another cycle of loss and separation,” the FSU report said.

“How can we develop children’s well-being and help families heal when they feel this cycle may take years to end?”

According to figures cited by the report, 45 percent of the more than 600,000 annual  admissions to state prison are due to parole or probation revocations. And nearly half of those admissions—approximately 26 percent—are due to technical violations, including unpaid fines and fees.

The report adds to the body of research powering a growing movement to re-think the structure of the nation’s community supervision system, which currently controls 4.5 million Americans—more than twice the number of individuals incarcerated in prisons and jails.

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.

They are proposing an overhaul that 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, a former New York City Probation Commissioner who is now co-director of the Columbia Justice Lab, told The Crime Report in an interview last year.

Speaking at a conference at John Jay College last month, former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey, said it was time to reform a “flawed” probation and parole system that works well for only a small percentage of individuals leaving prison.

Back Behind Bars for a Curfew Violation

Noting that the search for accurate data about the reasons for re-arrest is complicated by widely varying policies across states and even counties, the researchers focused on interviews with 35 individuals who were returned to prison for non-technical and non-drug-related violations of their terms of release—and apparently posed no threat to public safety.

Underlining critics’ arguments, the FSU researchers provided poignant examples from their interviews with participants:

      • “I was sitting in a car with my girlfriend outside my own apartment. My probation officer showed up and said it was a curfew violation.”
      • “I failed to register my vehicle change with the sheriff’s office.”
      • “I failed to register my new phone number.”

Among the most blatant examples were individuals whose parole or probation was revoked because they came “in contact with the police” for inadvertent, non-criminal behavior.

One individual recounted that he told his parole officer he would be returning later than usual from his job because he had to drive his inebriated boss home. They were pulled over by police because he was driving with only running lights.

report“When the officer ran my license, he saw I was on parole and arrested me for breaking curfew and coming into contact with police,” the individual recounted.

Another was re-arrested because, with his household budget already straining to support his children, he was overdue in payments for his supervision fees.

Such stories explain why the recidivism statistics gathered by authorities paint a misleading picture, the FSU study said.

“Many of the behaviors described in this report—like being in a bar—are acceptable for those not under community supervision,” the researchers wrote. “What makes this [being in a bar] worthy of re-arrest if their original offense is unrelated to substance abuse, and…[the individual] has no history of substance abuse?

“Consider the participant who was unable to pay child support and subsequently spent spent six months in jail. How did incarceration help that participant be able to make child support payments?

“How does incarceration help individuals to be accountable when they are managing family emergencies like the death of a parent, or the serious injury of a loved one?”

Even if charges for the ambiguous violation of “coming into contact with the police” are eventually dropped, the researchers argued it was hard to see how bringing “violators” back to court or re-sentencing them even for a short stay behind bars would help them “to live positively as they move forward.”

The FSU report stopped short of endorsing the more radical proposals emerging among some leaders of the community supervision community to abolish the present system and start again.

But the researchers said they hoped their reports would “spark dialogue about the contributors to exceedingly high rates of recidivism, and discussion about what behaviors should warrant a re-arrest.”

The authors of the report were Carrie Pettus-Davis, Ph.D., associate professor and founding director of FSU’s Institute for Justice Research and Development (IJRD); and Stephanie Kennedy, Ph.D., director of research dissemination at IJRD.

Their latest report, as well as earlier studies in the series, “Going Back to Jail Without Committing a Crime,” can be downloaded here.

This summary was prepared by Stephen Handelman, editor of The Crime Report.