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.


Anonymous said...

If punishment worked as a meaningful deterrent the US should have the lowest crime rates among industrialized nations. It doesn't.

We need to move to more balanced justice policy where prevention policies are more strongly emphasized. At present, prevention is an after thought that few see as related to improved public safety and continues to be a major policy error.

If we want less street crime and a safer society we need to improve the adverse social, economic and political conditions that set the stage for high crime rates. That cannot be accomplished with more prisons, police or courts.

Anonymous said...


Your comments that crime is a function of adverse ecconomic conditions does not ring true. England under Queen Elizabeth had murder rates that were a fraction of ours, and yet they would be considered an ecconomic backwater compared to the average inner city resident.

Anonymous said...

Five years from now, we will swing back to the 'Get Tough on Crime Approach'.. Watch and see!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:53, having been on the front lines of these fights at the Lege, I'd argue that Texas never moved away from a "Get Tough On Crime approach." The issue is one of resources in an era when pols all promised to reduce taxes. In that fiscal environment, they can't be as tough as they'd like on murderers, rapists, gangbangers and other dangerous, violent thugs because the prisons (and PO caseloads) are brimming with petty, nonviolent offenders.

So a big reason it was possible to sell this program in Texas during a period when the GOP controlled every branch of government was that it could be pitched in a way that allowed politicians to retain their "git-tuff" credentials and still be "smart on crime."

Anonymous said...

Well, as a probation officer, I can assure you probation is not the answer to the problem. Rehabilitation, Intervention, Counseling, and Treatment sound good; however, they are only as effective as the probationer's cooperation.

What do you do with a probationer who continues to test positive all through probation?

JSN said...


I guess you must be talking about in-your-face noncompliance instead of an occasional relapse.
If you put them in jail as an intermediate sanction and most have been in jail before and they are likely to consider jail to be an inconvenience not a deterrent.

Revocation to prison might work if they are not promptly paroled. If they are promptly paroled you have to deal with the same behavior. In the old days folks like that were sold as galley slaves but today we can't do that.

Anonymous said...

The mounting research evidence does not provide a strong foundation for arguing that enforcement policies alone will be effective in reducing crime.

In the short term we need enforcement policies to deal with active street criminals who victimize communities. However, that accomplishes very little over the long term. For every offender removed or under community supervision there is a ready replacement waiting in the wings. Additionally, high crime "hot spots" tend to persist in the same geographical areas for many decades despite huge incarceration rates (in some places up to 1 out of every 3 or 4 young adult males are in prison, jail, or under community supervision). In these areas enforcement could hardly be more heavily enforced.

Hot spots for street crime are almost always in neighborhoods with layer after layer of deprivation in every direction.

Prevention strives to get ahead of the pressures that generates replacements before they become heavily involved. First, we need to recognize that enforcement alone accomplishes very little. Then we have to face up to the research evidence that street crime is a deeply embedded social problem and highly concentrated in a few hot spot neighborhoods and reorient justice policy to deal with this reality through prevention.

In the long term we need to do two things simultaneously -- control active street criminals who won't control themselves and prevent as much street crime as possible with policies aimed at improving quality of life - particularly in hot spot neighborhoods.

We know a lot about what works and what doesn't. Let's use what we know from consistent research findings to bend the curve from exclusive focus on enforcement to prevention.

Anonymous said...

prevent as much street crime as possible with policies aimed at improving quality of life

Sounds very ominous.. hope you are not asking for more social programs.

The big problem with almost all anti-crime efforts is that their benefits usually outweigh their costs. Quite frankly I wish we could go back to the 1980’s high crime rates if it would mean spending less on the criminal justice system.

Anonymous said...

Crime fighting is not synonymous with reactive punitive responses to criminal behavior.

Crime fighting 101 starts by understanding that most street criminals were born into families that could not or would meet their basic needs and raised in neighborhoods with layer after layer of adverse conditions.

Anonymous said...

that could not or would meet their basic needs

Or perhaps they had everything they needed growing up but they just turned into needy people.