Less Is More: How Reducing Probation Populations Can Improve Outcomes

August 28, 2017
Authors: Michael P. Jacobson, Vincent Schiraldi, Reagan Daly, and Emily Hotez
The Executive Session on Community Corrections released a new paper, entitled Less Is More: How Reducing Probation Populations Can Improve Outcomes.

  • “The probation system is the most systematically underfunded, and the least powerful of all criminal justice agencies. With no clear political or fiscal path to a huge infusion of new resources, downsizing is essential in order to reallocate existing resources to community-based programs that focus on rehabilitation and treatment - rather than unnecessary monitoring and supervision. This can in turn decrease recidivism and improve public safety in addition to eliminating harmful and unjust probation fees.” – Michael Jacobson, Director, Institute for State and Local Government, City University of New York (CUNY), Professor, Sociology Department CUNY Graduate Center, and former NYC Probation Commissioner
  • “Established originally as an alternative to incarceration, probation has grown too large for jurisdictions to adequately fund and has become a major contributor to mass incarceration. The footprint of probation and parole, which now supervises more than twice as many people as are in all of America's prisons and jails, must be cut in half so community corrections can focus its resources on helping those most in need to turn their lives around.” – Vincent Schiraldi, Senior Research Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School Program in Criminal Justice, and former NYC Probation Commissioner
  • “The number of individuals incarcerated, under probation supervision, and crime rates have all decreased over the past few years. However the United States is still in an era of mass incarceration. This decline needs to not only be sustained, but significantly increased. Reducing the number of individuals under probation supervision by 50 percent in 10 years may seem idealistic, but looking to jurisdictions such as New York who have done this successfully shows that this idea is in fact pragmatic.” – Reagan Daly, Research Director, Institute for State and Local Governance, City University of New York, Institute for State and Local Government, City University of New York

In this new report, co-authored by Michael Jacobson, Vincent Schiraldi, Reagan Daly, and Emily Hotez, the authors discuss the consequences of the tremendous growth in probation supervision over the past several decades in the United States and argue that the number of people on probation supervision needs to be significantly downsized.

The authors find that probation has often not served as an alternative to incarceration, but rather as a key driver of mass incarceration in the United States. Despite the large numbers of individuals under supervision, probation is the most underfunded of agencies within the criminal justice system. This leaves those under supervision, often an impoverished population, with the responsibility of paying for probation supervision fees, court costs, urinalysis tests, and electronic monitoring fees among a plethora of other fines. These financial obligations have incredibly detrimental implications on the mental and economic state of those under supervision and is argued to be an unjust and ineffective public policy.

Using New York City as an example, the authors outline how the probation department there was able to see a two-thirds decline in the number of people under community supervision from 1996 to 2014. At the same time that this decline happened, the city’s rate of crime and incarceration both decreased precipitously, showing that jurisdictions can experience fewer people on probation, less crime and less incarceration.

The report suggests that probation departments should focus one (1) placing lower-risk clients onto caseloads that utilize “light-touch” mechanisms such as kiosks or computerized monitoring, (2) shorten probation terms to no more than is necessary to achieve the goals of sentencing and (3) aggressively pursue early discharge for clients that successfully demonstrate compliance with the regulations of supervision.

The authors also drafted a statement based on the report, which every major community corrections association and many community corrections heads, notable individuals and organizations have signed onto echoing the recommendations made in the report.

Headshots of the authors

Download this report

Download the statement

Read the press release

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