Probation and parole were designed as alternatives to time in prison, but they often end up having the opposite effect.
Nationwide, 45 percent of admissions to state prisons are the result of probation or parole violations. Sometimes these violations are serious, but most involve technicalities, such as botched paperwork, curfew violations or missing a drug test, according to a report released Tuesday by the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center.
“Many states have made recidivism reduction a public safety priority,” says Megan Quattlebaum, the center’s director, “but the harsh reality is that supervision fails nearly as often as it succeeds.”
States spend $9.3 billion a year incarcerating people for parole or probation violations, according to CSG. About a third of that, $2.8 billion, is spent locking people up for technical violations. That doesn’t include the cost of housing inmates in local jails.
Although it has long been clear that parole and probation violations account for a substantial share of prison admissions, the CSG report is the first effort to collect information from all 50 states.
“We’ve had data on individual states but never a complete national picture,” says Adam Gelb, founder and director of the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonprofit group.
Many states have changed their sentencing laws and reentry programs to cut down on prison recidivism over the past decade, but the incarceration of parole and probation violators is just starting to draw wider attention.
“This has been the dirty little secret of the system for decades,” Gelb says. “It’s a huge driver of prison populations and costs.”
Are Probation and Parole Rules Realistic?
One of the questions corrections officials themselves ask is whether probation and parole rules are realistic, or whether they’re setting people up for failure.
Spending time with other people who have criminal records can be a violation, says John Wetzel, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Many felons return to communities where it’s difficult for them to avoid spending time with other people with criminal records.
"They’re asked to do a laundry list of things,” says Ron Corbett, an adjunct professor of criminology at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and former acting probation commissioner for the commonwealth. “Given their life circumstances -- having few resources, no transportation, very little money -- it becomes mission impossible from day one.”
Probation should not be a “walk in the park,” Corbett says, but failure to comply with technical requirements can be punished in ways other than a stay in state prison.
High Prison Populations and High Costs
At any given time, 280,000 people are incarcerated due to parole or probation violations. In 13 states, it's the reason one out of three prisoners is locked up. In four states -- Arkansas, Idaho, Missouri and Wisconsin -- they make up more than half the prison population.
A dozen states are spending more than $100 million a year each on incarcerating people for technical violations alone.
“If we had to spend $100 million to ensure that people in Pennsylvania are safe, we would do that,” Wetzel says. “If we’re not happy with the outcomes, obviously you have to change that.”
There's a range in terms of how insistent states are about sending people to prison for minor violations.
California spends $235 million incarcerating people for purely technical violations, or about 8.5 percent of its total cost for housing prisoners for all probation and parole violations. By comparison, Wisconsin spends $197 million just on technical violators, or 44 percent of the total.
Parole and Probation Reform
Putting people back in prison can backfire, suggests Wetzel. It not only keeps them from working, it could cause them to lose access to some government benefits and increase their risk of drug abuse.
Pennsylvania legislators are considering a bill that would cap the amount of time offenders can be sent to prison for violating probation. It would also block judges from extending probationary periods when defendants can’t afford to pay restitution.
Missouri began implementing changes this month to cut down on the imprisonment of people who violate the terms of their parole or probation. They include a new set of risk assessments, better coordination of cases between prisons and community supervisors, and updated incentives and consequences for various types of behavior, according to Anne Precythe, director of the state Department of Corrections.
“At the end of the day, if we didn’t change our practices, we were going to have to build two new prisons to the tune of $485 million,” she says. “That’s money the state of Missouri can’t afford.”
Quattlebaum, the CSG Justice Center's director, says her group is beginning to work with states on parole and probation reform ideas. Arnold Ventures, the philanthropic group that helped sponsor the CSG study, announced last month that it was devoting $2 million to a research grant program to study probation failures and policies that keep more people out of prison.
“State and local authorities need to dig deeper into their own numbers to figure out how they [can] further focus prison beds on people who really need them,” says Gelb, the Council on Criminal Justice director. “Because it involves people who have broken supervision rules, but not committed new crimes, it’s one of the easiest targets for reforms.”