By Dr. Brian Lovins
A recent report, “Confined and Costly, How Supervision Violations are Filling Prisons and Burdening Budgets”, compiled by Council of State Governments (CSG) describes each state’s prison population as it relates to probation and parole violations. The first of its kind, this report provides stakeholders with a quick glance at revocation rates and the impact that probation and parole have on prison populations. They found that 45 percent of all state prison admissions are driven by probation or parole revocations. Moreover, nearly 25% of all people incarcerated on any given day were on probation or parole prior to prison. Probation and parole populations have grown 3-fold in the past 50 years. One in 55 adults in the United States are under some form of community corrections. While the CSG Justice Center is calling for more focus on improving probation, it is also easy to look at these data and see why others are calling for the end of probation and parole.
Before we shutter probation and parole agencies, we need to put a few things into perspective or risk falling into another Martinson “nothing works” era. To better understand the CSG results, we must consider three key points.
First, these results do not reflect all probation and parole agencies. We cannot fall prey to lumping all probation and parole agencies into a single group like we did in the early 1970s with correctional programming. While these data could be interpreted as a failure of the community corrections system, the outcomes of probation and parole agencies vary significantly across jurisdictions. We do not have to look much further than the CSG report itself to find this to be true. While there were 4 states in which more than 50 percent of the prison population was comprised of supervision violations, there were 4 states that probation and parole revocations made up less than 5 percent of the prison population.
Even within states, not all probation departments or parole regions are the same. Looking at statewide revocation numbers is akin to examining the effectiveness of each school by the overall state reading level. While informative, a lot of well performing schools would be lost in the mix with those schools whose performance is poor. The same is true for probation agencies and parole regions—those departments and regions that are doing well are lost in the larger discussion of high failure rates.
Second, these data are a snapshot and difficult to interpret in the larger context of criminal justice reform. We are finally shaking off the effects of the get-tough era where the corrections system was overloaded with people, few resources, and a shift towards punishment and accountability. Over the past 15 years, community corrections agencies have made great strides in adopting practices that are designed to help change behavior—returning to their initial purpose of rehabilitation. From adopting assessments and more science-based interventions to building better treatment programs, probation and parole departments across the country have been working hard to impact individuals’ lives in a positive manner.
While important, this report provides the reader with a snapshot of where the system is, not where they have been or where they are headed. A perfect example is Texas. In 1994, 77 percent of prison admissions were from probation or parole revocations. Fast forward to 2018, Texas has reduced the proportion of prison admissions for revocations by 39 percent, to its lowest point in 30 years. While there is still room for improvement, Texas, like many states, has begun to focus significantly on how to improve its community supervision services.
Third, what is the alternative if we were to abolish probation and parole? More than 3,000 probation and parole agencies are estimated to exist across the country. There are just under 4.5 million individuals on community supervision. There are nearly 100,000 probation and parole officers across the nation. If we were to eliminate probation and parole services, who would provide services to justice-involved individuals and how effective would they be? Instead, we should identify the agencies, jurisdictions, and states that are providing effective interventions and improve our understanding of how they are having positive impacts.
In no way does this mean there is not room for improvement. We know there are probation and parole agencies across the nation who are invested in improving their outcomes. Many probation chiefs and parole administrators understand the impact that their agencies have on justice-involved individuals and are taking significant strides to improve. We are no longer dominated by trail ‘em, nail ‘em, and jail ‘em policies. To move forward and ensure that probation and parole agencies continue to grow we need to invest in three things:
1) We must focus on outcomes over inputs. Agencies must track their outcomes and provide the results back to staff on how well they are doing. We have focused on inputs (e.g. number of contacts, timeliness of notes and reports) for too long. We must shift to tracking outcomes and truly invest in justice-involved individuals getting better.
2) We must develop a set of national standards so that all agencies, whether big or small, have a clear roadmap to delivering effective practices that are designed to change behavior. As we have seen in the CSG report, there are significant differences in probation and parole outcomes across the country. A set of national standards would help guide the field and provide more uniformity across jurisdictions.
3) We must develop a national clearinghouse for strategies and innovative practices that improve the work that we do. We need to develop cross system collaborations that share the work that is being done and invest in action-oriented research to continue to develop strategies that are effective in improving probation and parole services.
The CSG report reminds us that we have a long way to go, but it also points us to states that have found success. I urge us to focus on the areas of success, highlight the programs that are working, replicate policies and practices that have improved success, learn from our mistakes, and resist the Martinson trap of “nothing works”, instead continuing to explore what interventions work, for whom, and under what circumstances.
 Watson, Solomon, La Vigne, & Travis (2004) A portrait of prison reentry in Texas. Urban Institute: Justice Policy Center.