Sunday, August 16, 2009
Probation numbers expanded even more than prisons
Via Doc Berman, I was fascinated by this telling chart, which accompanied an op ed by Charles Blow in yesterday's New York Times, depicting national growth in the four major categories that make up the correctional poppulation over a 25-year stretch: Offenders in prisons, jail, on parole, and on probation (or in Texas statutes, "community supervision"). Texas' chart would look relatively similar, but with even steeper "prison" and "probation" curves.
These categories cost taxpayers more money as you descend the Y axis from top to bottom. Probation costs the least per offender and prison the most, thus naturally probation is the punishment used the most often. Parole is a function of the cost of incarceration and physical limits on the number of prisoners the state can reasonably stuff in a box. However, expansion of probation and parole populations also contribute to boosting the number of prisoners because of high revocation rates, particularly for drug offenders.
This explains the crux of Texas' 2007 probation reforms and why they've been so effective so soon at reducing the state's incarceration rate, even as crime has fallen. The statute straight-up reduced maximum probation terms for many offenses to just five years (down from ten), and allowed judges to terminate probation early for probationers who demonstrate good conduct and complete other terms of their supervision. Fewer people on probation means fewer people get revoked, which on the margins reduced pressure on the prison system overall enough to forestall the immediate need for new construction.
At the time we could say the tactics were "evidence based," but a leap of faith was still required - nobody knew exactly what would happen. Today, Texas can say these methods have worked in the real world with few of the much-ballyhooed ill effects on safety that critics stridently predicted. Indeed, the legislation arguably contributes to public safety by giving offenders incentives to earn their way off probation early through good behavior.
Since we've seen the tactic can work without increasing crime - indeed, now that Whitmire and Madden's 2007 reform legislation has come to be viewed as a national model - the Texas Lege should go back in 2011 and finish the job, adding the offense categories which were approved by the Senate but stripped out of the later-vetoed legislation by the House in 2005. The most vocally opposed legislators are mostly gone now, and there's plenty of evidence to justify expading the use of shorter, stronger probation more broadly.