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August 28, 2017

"Less Is More: How Reducing Probation Populations Can Improve Outcomes"

Download (3)The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper emerging from the Executive Session on Community Corrections at the Harvard Kennedy School.  Here is the paper's introduction:

This paper will argue that, similar to the growth in prisons that has resulted in our current state of mass incarceration, the tremendous growth in probation supervision in the United States over the past several decades should be reversed, and the entire system of probation significantly downsized.  Specifically, we argue here that while the number of people on probation supervision in the U.S. has declined over the past several years (as have the number of people incarcerated and crime rates), that decline should not only be sustained but significantly increased, with a goal of reducing the number of people under probation supervision by 50 percent over 10 years.  We then discuss New York City as an example of a jurisdiction that has successfully done this.

In many respects, the rationale for this argument mirrors the argument against mass incarceration.  In most jurisdictions, probation is a punitive system that attempts to elicit compliance from individuals primarily through the imposition of conditions, fines, and fees that in many cases cannot be met (Corbett, 2015; Klingele, 2013).  This is not only a poor use of scarce resources; it contributes to a revolving door in which individuals who cannot meet those obligations cycle back and forth between probation and incarceration without necessarily improving public safety.  In fact, the cycle of incarceration and supervision can actually threaten public safety, and it certainly has harmful and farreaching consequences for those who are caught up in it, including job loss, disconnection from family, and housing instability (Council of Economic Advisers, 2015).  Given this, along with national and local data and examples that clearly demonstrate that reducing “mass probation” can go hand in hand with a reduction in the number of people incarcerated and ongoing declines in national and local crime, it begs the question of why so many jurisdictions continue to promulgate this punitive approach.

Because probation is the most severely underfunded and the least politically powerful of all criminal justice agencies, there is no likelihood of any massive infusion of new resources into the field.  Thus, the limited resources saved from this downsizing may be used to invest in community-based programs that provide employment, substance abuse, and mental health treatment to the remaining population — those that pose the highest public safety risk — as a way to significantly reduce that risk and avoid unnecessary monitoring and supervision.  A portion of these savings should also substitute for the rampant use of probation fees used throughout the U.S. as a way to pay for a structurally underfunded system.  These fees are unjust, counter-productive, and antithetical to the legitimacy of any system of justice (Martin, Smith, and Still, 2017).

August 28, 2017 at 11:11 AM | Permalink


Should the Kennedy School require a Practicum. The author is made a case manager. Find a suitable prisoner. Provide employment, and treatment. See what happens once the person is out of prison. Include in your policy prescription.

Posted by: David Behar | Aug 28, 2017 11:42:05 AM

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