Across the nation, there are more people on probation than there are people in prisons, in jails and, on parole combined. This highlights the well-documented overload faced by local and state probation systems, who struggle with varying policies and term lengths imposed across the country.
However, according to a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, states can shorten the time individuals are on probation and still protect public safety.
“Wide variations in policies and term lengths across states point to opportunities for reform,” the report’s authors say.
A disconnect highlighted by the report is that there is no data showing that long probation sentences are associated with lower recidivism rates. In fact, as the authors point out, the truth is quite the opposite: individuals with long probation sentences are “more likely than shorter ones to lead to technical violations,” such as missing appointments, unemployment, or testing positive for drugs.
Longer supervision periods, coupled with the higher likelihood of a probationer committing a technical violation, creates a vicious cycle, the report concluded, noting that at least one in 10 state prison admissions are the direct result of someone who was on probation and committed a technical violation, landing them back behind bars.
Because of these alarming statistics, Pew began addressing the numbers through an in-depth analysis of Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) data from 2000 through 2018, looking for patterns in all 50 states’ probation lengths and reoffence statistics.
“This report provides a first-of-its-kind national and state-level portrait of the average length of probation and explores whether term lengths can be safely reduced and what options are available for state policymakers looking to improve their system’s outcomes,” the authors wrote.
Through their analysis, Pew authors found that without national guidelines and a consistent system, probation is disjointed and full of “gaps.”
“Although the average total time spent on probation declined nationally by roughly 22 days, or about 3 percent, between 2000 and 2018, it increased in 28 states,” the report begins.
Moreover, in 14 states, the average time someone spent on probation rose by over a third in the same time span.
“Across the 250,000 people who exited probation in those 14 states in 2018,” the authors continue, “that increase adds up to almost 300,000 additional years spent under supervision, in the aggregate.”
Anecdotally, in New Jersey, the average probation term in 2000 was 26 months, compared to the average probation term in 2018, which was 52 months. In Hawaii, the 18-year difference was stark, as the average probation term in 2000 was 31 months, rising to 59 months in 2018.
Other states such as Idaho and Kentucky imposed increases of 100 percent or more on the probation term.
The changes and additional months added to individual sentences for the quarter of a million people who exited supervision in 2018 represent nearly 300,000 additional years spent on supervision.
However, not every state saw an increase in probation time.
“Among states with lower average terms, the mean decline was 25 percent, with decreases ranging from—4 percent in Vermont to—49 percent in Oregon and Georgia,” further highlighting the disconnect, the authors write.
This fractured system came to fruition due to the fact that judges across the country follow different philosophies, and impose those philosophies differently in sentence length and their decisions for addressing technical violations.
Moreover, other states may have legal limits on circumstances under when someone’s supervision could be revoked, creating an “extended supervision” that could be added in any given state.
Probation Length and Recidivism
“Research has found that longer terms of probation are not correlated with lower rates of re-offending and are more likely than shorter terms to result in technical violations, which studies have shown are a key driver of state incarceration rates and costs,” the report outlines.
Pew engaged an independent research firm, Maxarth LLC, to examine the relationship between longer probation terms and re-offending in Oregon and South Carolina, where in-depth data is accessible.
They found that most people (nine in 10) who were arrest-free for their first year on probation could have safely spent less time on supervision, as they were in no risk to recidivate.
Because of the data available, the Pew authors write that the average length of supervision in South Carolina could safely drop eight months, and the probation term in Oregon could drop 10 months, and the probationer will be at no greater risk of recidivating; moreover, the community will be at no greater risk.
“Judges often make decisions about when or whether to terminate supervision early,” the report details.
“Therefore, how long people serve on probation may frequently be determined by jurisdiction-specific factors, such as judicial philosophy and culture.”
Because of this, the authors of the report say that policymakers can shift the constant focus of probation from length of time — to achievement of goals, like the successful completion of rehabilitative programs and drug treatment, as well as secured employment.
Other recommendations include:
- States should have statutes that provide for early release;
- Implement goal-based supervision that will require people to meet obligations and complete programs;
- Institute earned time credits for completed goals to reduce their supervision time; and,
- Creating mandatory periodic reviews of probation to evaluate people’s progress towards changing their behavior and gauge readiness for reintegration.
The authors conclude by saying that through rewriting the narrative of what probation and supervision must to look like, states can “safely shorten probation terms, lower recidivism rates, and bolster public safety.”
The full report can be accessed here.
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.