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A probationer sits in a class at the Adult Day Reporting Center in Los Angeles in 2011.

When Less is More

How putting fewer people on probation and parole can reduce prison populations, save money and keep us safer.

In the national discussion about reducing mass incarceration, the 4.7 million people on probation and parole are often overlooked. That’s too bad, because “mass supervision” — one out of every 52 adults is watched, twice as many as are locked up in America – is a deprivation of liberty in its own right and has become a major contributor to incarceration.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is contained in a new report produced under the auspices of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and a “Statement on the Future of Community Corrections” to be issued Monday at a press conference in New York by the nation’s leading probation and parole officials. They explain how we can both reduce the number of people under supervision and make our communities safer.

How can we have fewer people under supervision and more public safety?

Well, for one thing, research has shown that supervising people who present a low risk of re-arrest actually makes them more likely to get re-arrested. In part this is because heavy-handed supervision can jeopardize jobs, and reporting in at probation offices means contact with clients who have more serious criminal records. And in part it is because if you watch almost anyone more closely, you can find excuses to re-arrest them.

That is why almost as many people go to prison every year for violating conditions of probation and parole, like missing appointments or failing a drug test, as for new crimes.

New York City, where each of us has served as probation commissioner, provides a good example of how a jurisdiction can both reduce probation supervision and improve outcomes.

Over the last two decades, the city reduced the number of people on probation by about two-thirds. Further, the Probation Department enrolled its low-risk clients – around two-thirds of those on probation – in less intrusive supervision that entailed reporting in to an electronic kiosk monthly. Finally, the department granted early discharge to almost six times as many clients in 2013 as in 2007. All of this freed up overworked probation officers to concentrate on the potential problem cases.

Did crime spike as a result? Did prison and jail populations mushroom?

The answer to both is an emphatic no. Violent crime dropped in New York City by 57 percent from 1996 to 2014, and the city’s jail and prison incarceration rate declined by an equally impressive 55 percent.

The low-risk clients checking in at kiosks experienced lower re-arrest rates; so did the higher risk clients who were more closely supervised by probation officers with lower caseloads.

And those discharged early from probation were less likely to be arrested for a new felony in their first unsupervised year (3 percent) than those who were on probation for their full term (4.3 percent).

Further, while the Probation Department’s budget declined from $97 million in 2002 to $73 million in 2016, its expenditures per person on probation actually doubled (controlling for inflation). This has allowed the department to reduce caseload sizes, increase contracts with non-profit organizations to support its clients, and open neighborhood offices to support and supervise people on probation throughout the city.

Results like these, and similar experiences in jurisdictions around the country have led the American Probation and Parole Association, the Association of State Correctional Administrators, the National Association of Probation Executives, the Association of Paroling Authorities International, the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies and over 30 current and former probation and parole officials to assert that an excess of probation and parole is “a significant contributor to mass incarceration” and to call for “the number of people on probation and parole supervision in America [to] be significantly reduced.”

The statement from these experts calls for people to be sentenced to probation and parole only when necessary, for supervision terms to be shorter, and for conditions to be less onerous and tied more directly to client wellness and community safety. The group also recommended that the savings from reducing caseloads be plowed back into more services and supports for those under supervision and to allow for eliminating or curtailing onerous fees for the mostly impoverished population under supervision.

With budgets tight throughout the country, the massive increase in community supervision has been severely underfunded. There is no realistic way to expect that probation and parole funding will catch up to provide adequate supports for the 4.7 million Afmericans under supervision.

But that’s OK, because we don’t need to supervise 4.7 million people. In fact, our research and experience show that we could probably supervise half that many, do a better job of it and provide more supports for a largely destitute population at no additional cost, all while improving public safety.

Vincent Schiraldi is a Senior Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Program in Criminal Justice. Michael P. Jacobson is Director of the Institute of State and Local Governance at the City University of New York and a sociology professor at the CUNY Graduate Center.