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New Group Seeks To Reform Parole and Probation
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 03/18/2019

Paroled I was recently contacted by people representing the Reform Alliance with the prospect of returning to a criminal justice public relations job. I’m flattered by the inquiry but I’m not their man.

I’m often flummoxed by how some, including the Alliance, describe the criminal justice system. What they offer and what I experienced are often worlds apart.

The heart and soul of organizations trying to reform parole and probation is the alleged harshness of the system. After close to thirty years of representing parole and probation agencies, it’s been my experience that laxity is the best descriptor of community supervision.

The average parole and probation agent in the United States carries a 150-1 ratio which means most offenders, even the ones at the extreme edge of criminality are only seen once or twice a month during fifteen-minute office visits. Most have numerous technical violations (i.e., missed appointments, drug positives, lack of restitution, failing to pay child support, moving without permission), yet the consequences for misbehaviour is often nothing more than verbal warnings. Offenders with twenty to forty violations (or more) are not uncommon yet little is done to hold them accountable.

However, when you read the literature from the Alliance and other reformers, you get the opposite impression.

Reform Alliance

“The mission of the REFORM Alliance is to dramatically reduce the number of people who are unjustly under the control of the criminal justice system – starting with probation and parole. To win, we will leverage our considerable resources to change laws, policies, hearts and minds.”

“At REFORM, we #FightDifferent. Our collective disgust with the current state of the American criminal justice system is creating a powerful, growing alliance that spans different backgrounds, industries and political beliefs. We are bringing together leaders in business, government, entertainment, sports, technology, art, and culture to give voice to the voiceless. We won’t stop until we’ve changed the laws, policies, and practices that perpetuate the horrific injustice we’re seeing in America.”

“The Alliance started with the unjust re-imprisonment of recording artist Meek Mill due to minor technical probation violations. The shocking two-to-four year sentence Meek received in November 2017 spurred the international #FreeMeek movement, which led to his release on bail in April 2018.

Although Meek had the resources and public platform to fight his case, he and the other founders recognized Meek’s case is only one of millions – and that the vast majority of people trapped in the system don’t have the resources to fight back. After Meek’s release, we joined forces and committed to changing mass supervision laws (probation and parole policies) that will have the greatest impact on the largest number of people,” Reform Alliance.

Does The System Need Reform?

Heavens yes. There are so many on parole and probation supervision (statistics below) that it boggles the mind. The Agents in charge don’t have a chance to either supervise or assist.

There is no national strategy for parole and probation, there is no research consensus. Most community supervision agencies are on their own which is why you get some with law enforcement models and others with a social work emphasis. Reformers preach an evidence-based approach which is disingenuous in the extreme, there is no evidence beyond little to nothing works.

There is no data (beyond GPS supervision) indicating that programs work; most do not reduce recidivism or reduce it by less than ten percent or they make things worse. This includes reentry or speciality courts. Recidivism (based on new arrests, convictions and incarcerations) is massive.

Quite frankly, community supervision fails because there is little confidence in the efficacy of parole and probation which is why states and local organizations are reluctant to offer sufficient funds for programs or new supervision techniques.

Parole and probation is an inexpensive way of processing millions of offenders. The goal of most is adherence to the dictates of the courts and parole commission, nothing more, nothing less.

What the Reform Alliance and other criminal justice reformers need is to convince the Department of Justice and foundations to undertake a massive research agenda to give us guidance because, at the moment, we are adrift.

We probably do not need to intensely supervise all offenders because we simply can’t. We should focus on those deemed dangerous and cut our losses.

But for the love of heavens, don’t lie to the public as to what parole and probation does. We don’t supervise, we don’t hold them accountable. Hell, if I had a nickel for every offender who didn’t pay his fines or restitution or child support but who “successfully” completed supervision, I would be a rich man.

Governors are telling parole and probation agencies to cut the number of people they return to the prison system because states can’t afford it. It’s the affordability of corrections that drives reform with some conservative and liberal crosscurrents thrown in.

It has little to do with the success of people on supervision. It has little to do with public safety.

Conclusions

Reform groups claiming to address the “harshness” of parole and probation are simply misleading the public. Yes, there are heavyhanded cases that enforce parole commission and court dictates, but they don’t represent most on community supervision.

Parole and probation agencies who suggest they are holding offenders accountable are also being less than honest. The same applies to rehabilitative efforts.

Until we can create a research base giving us firm guidance for the first time, and unless the funds needed are applied, we are doing nothing more than guessing as to the best possible path for those supervised.

It’s time we stop advocating and rededicate ourselves to having an honest discussion with the public.

Background-Corrections Population

Out of the 6,741,000 people under daily correctional supervision in 2015, 870,000 are on parole compared to 3,790,000 on probation.

National parole populations increased most years since 2005.

1,527,000 are in prison, Correctional Populations in the US.

Background-Parole

The use of discretionary parole has increased dramatically over the last ten years.

The parole population from 2005 to 2015 included the same percentage of active cases (83 percent) when they were supposed to decline due to diversions by the parole commission or agency policy.

Caseloads grew more challenging with more violent offenders. The percent of violent offenders in US prisons increased since 2005. It’s now at 54 percent with many more having violent histories.

The increased use of parole rather than mandatory release means that offenders will be on parole caseloads longer (i.e., paroled at 50 percent of a sentence rather than mandatorily released at 85 percent of a sentence). For those unaware, the sentence isn’t over until expiration while on community supervision.

Thus parole agents (with very high caseload ratios) are handling longer, more violent cases with the diversion of lower-level offenders to inactive caseloads almost nonexistent, Crime in America.

Background-Probation

Felony cases went from 50 percent of the probation population in 2005 to 57 percent in 2015, which means that probation is handling a more challenging workload.

Note that most felony convictions in the US do not result in a sentence to prison, Crime in America.

Misdemeanors fell from 49 percent to 41 percent.

All categories of violent offenders grew slightly except for domestic violence. Overall violent grew from 18 percent to 20 percent.

The probation population from 2005 to 2015 included more active cases when they were supposed to decline due to diversions.

Treatment doesn’t exist beyond 1 percent. There may be programs funded by others, but most probation agencies do not control those funds.

Caseloads grew more challenging with more felonies and slightly more violent offenders.

Thus probation agents (with very high caseload ratios) are handling more difficult cases with almost nonexistent treatment resources that they control, Crime in America

Recidivism-Released from Prison

Five out of six state prisoners were arrested at least once during the nine years after their release. This is the first BJS study that uses a 9-year follow-up period to examine the recidivism patterns of released prisoners. The longer follow-up period shows a much fuller picture of offending patterns and criminal activity of released prisoners than is shown by prior studies that used a 3-or 5-year follow-up period.

This 2018 update on prisoner recidivism tracks a representative sample of prisoners released in 2005 in 30 states and chronicles their arrests through 2014. In 2005, those 30 states accounted for 77% of all persons released from state prisons nationwide.

Overall, 68% of released state prisoners were arrested within three years, 79% within six years, and 83% within nine years. The 401,288 released state prisoners were arrested an estimated 2 million times during the nine years after their release, an average of five arrests per released prisoner, Crime in America.

Recidivism-Probation

To my knowledge, there is one major and definitive study (based on large numbers of offenders) on state probation recidivism. It focused solely on felony probationers.

Within 3 years 43% of state felons on probation were rearrested for a felony. Half of the arrests were for a violent crime (murder, rape, robbery, or aggravated assault) or a drug offense.

Results showed that within 3 years of sentencing, 62 percent either had a disciplinary hearing for violating a condition of their probation or were arrested for another felony.

In addition, within 3 years, 46 percent had been sent to prison or jail or had absconded.

Fifty-three percent had special conditions attached to their probation, most often drug testing, drug treatment, or alcohol treatment.

The financial penalties imposed on the probationers included victim restitution (29 percent), court costs (48 percent), and probation supervision fees (32 percent), USDOJ.

Treatment Results

An Evaluation Of Seven Second Chance Act Adult Demonstration Programs: Impact Findings At 18 Months, describes the impacts of seven programs that were awarded grants under the Second Chance Act to reduce recidivism by addressing the challenges faced by adults after incarceration.

“The study measured recidivism as involvement with the criminal justice system in the 18 months after that led to re-arrest, reconviction, or re-incarceration. As of 18 months after random assignment, increased access to services for participants did not lead to increased desistance.”

“Whether recidivism was measured using survey or administrative data, those in the program group were not less likely than those in the control group to be re-arrested, reconvicted, or re-incarcerated; their time to re-arrest or reincarceration was no shorter; and they did not have fewer total days incarcerated (including time in both prisons and jails).”

“There is some evidence that those in the program group were somewhat more likely to be convicted of a new crime or have probation or parole revoked…” see Second Chance Act.

I understand that some will imply that treatment efforts didn’t go far enough to address multiple symptoms, and it’s only seven programs at 18 months, but it’s not just this research. Collectively, the data over time indicate that programs simply don’t work for the mast majority of offenders.

Additional Data:

The Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI) was the federal government’s other signature effort using evidence-based tactics and programs to reduce recidivism. It showed few (if any) positive results.

Go to the federal government’s Crime Solutions.Gov database and plug in “recidivism.” There are few prison or parole and probation efforts marked as “effective,” see https://www.crimesolutions.gov/.

Per a survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, money for treatment for probation caseloads is almost nonexistent. It was 1 percent in 2005. It was 1 percent in 2015. That’s not to say that some probationers don’t get treatment, but if they do, it comes from external sources, Crime in America.

I cannot remember any US Department of Justice funded data indicating that programs for offenders in prison or parole and probation that rose above ten percent. Most offered results much less than ten percent in recidivism.

When programs are offered to offenders, some work, some don’t and some make things worse. When they do work, the results are generally small, see Crime in America.

There is no indication that the massive caseload ratios of parole and probation agents have been reduced thus making it impossible to be effective. 100-200 offenders to every parole and probation agent ratios are not unusual. These are impossible caseloads to manage.

I am unaware of any data stating that the use of risk instruments to select the “real” threats to public safety is any better than flipping a coin. Risk instruments are the heart and soul of caseload management. Most media reports on offender assessment are negative, Christian Science Monitor.

Even drug and other specialty courts have inconsistent records, Crime in America.

Intensive Supervision

“Studies show that current efforts to reduce recidivism through intensive supervision are not working. Why is intensive supervision so ineffective? Requiring lots of meetings, drug tests, and so on can complicate a client’s life, making it more difficult to get to work or school or care for family members (meetings are often scheduled at inconvenient times and may be far away). A heavy tether to the criminal justice system can also make it difficult for individuals to move on, psychologically. Knowing that society still considers you a criminal may make it harder to move past that phase of your life. These difficulties may negate the valuable support that probation and parole officers can provide by connecting clients to services and stepping in to help at the first sign of trouble.”

“It is unclear what the optimal level of supervision is for those on parole or probation, but these studies demonstrate that current supervision levels are too high. We could reduce the requirements of community supervision—for low-risk and high-risk offenders alike—and spend those taxpayer dollars on more valuable services, such as substance abuse treatment or cognitive behavioral therapy. This would be a good first step toward breaking the vicious incarceration cycle,” Brookings.

Project Hope

Project Hope is a judge involved probation project originating in Hawaii and replicated in a variety of states. It combined frequent contact with services. It showed no reductions in recidivism, Summary.

Decide Your Time (Delaware) Rated No Effects

This was a program for chronic drug-using probationers that incorporated graduated sanctions with incentives to reduce recidivism and drug use among participants.

The program is rated “No Effects.” Implemented in Delaware, the program was shown to have no impact on the successful completion of probation, on re-arrests, or on drug use, Crime Solutions.Gov.

Reprinted with permission from http://www.crimeinamerica.net.

Contact us at crimeinamerica@gmail.com or for media on deadline, use leonardsipes@gmail.com.

Leonard A. Sipes, Jr has thirty-five years of experience supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. He is the Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and the Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. He has a Post Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of the book "Success With the Media". He can be reached via email at leonardsipes@gmail.com.


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