Each year, the American Probation and Parole Association uplifts the hard work and dedication of community supervision professionals during PPPS (Pretrial, Probation, and Parole Supervision) Week. This event is an opportunity to highlight innovative work supervision officials are doing to drive changes in their systems — changes that may serve as an example for other agency leaders or policymakers.
From Louisiana to Minnesota, Pennsylvania to Washington, local community supervision officials are taking measures to reform practices around drug testing, early termination, the provision of supportive services, engagement with the community, and the promotion of racial equity.
More than 3.7 million people are under community supervision in the United States. Supervision can last from several months to several years, or longer, and the conditions imposed during supervision can make it difficult to work, care for one’s family, recover from addiction, or partake in prosocial activities that facilitate reentry into society.
number of people under community supervision in the United States
For their part, supervision officers are required to manage enormous caseloads and find ways to support people, despite being under-resourced, overburdened, and incentivized primarily to punish people for failing to comply with conditions.
“Supervision systems today rely heavily on surveillance and punishment,” says Dylan Hayre, director of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures. “Probation and parole have become, for far too many people, revolving doors into prisons and jails when they could and should serve as true alternatives to or pathways away from those systems. We could be doing a lot less, doing it at a significantly decreased level of intensity, and achieving better outcomes for people and communities. Thankfully, there are agency leaders across the country who are moving in that direction, and who are driving a fundamental shift in policies, from catching failure to supporting success. At AV, we are committed to understanding the impact of reforms like these so that communities across the country can learn from them and implement what works.”
“How do we help people move towards the life they want to live?”
Ever since she was about 14, Jazmin Dietrich has struggled with substance use. One consequence has been routine involvement with the justice system in York County, Pennsylvania, where she lives.
Once she entered adulthood, Dietrich found herself bouncing in and out of jails and rehab facilities, and she was often on probation. Her relationship with her probation officers was an adversarial one, she recalls. She felt that they were there to punish, not to help her get treatment or straighten out her life.
“Normally, I was ducking and dodging them, or they were threatening to put me in jail if I wasn’t in their office within ten minutes,” Dietrich says. “I wouldn’t be compliant, and then they would catch me and put me in jail.”
York County officials have sought to change these paradigms and are using new approaches that seek to reduce incarceration.
“The status quo was using jail as our response to almost everything,” says April Billet, director of the York County Probation and Parole Department.
However, Billet recognized that that approach often makes things worse. Incarcerating people removes them from their families, communities, and jobs, stripping them of protective factors that help them succeed. Jail can also expose people to negative experiences that in turn could make them more likely to commit new crimes.
Today, the department is committed to implementing evidence-based practices that use jail sparingly, support people on community supervision, and uphold community safety.
It’s often unnecessary to jail someone when they test positive for drug use while in treatment, so the department does it less frequently. They have also implemented a risk assessment tool, and people at low risk of recidivism are not required to report in person. Instead, they are monitored through a web portal, which gives them more freedom. These changes allow the department to focus resources on high-risk people. Meanwhile, officers are encouraged to use motivational interviewing techniques that have been shown to build relationships with people under supervision and help them achieve their goals.
The York County Probation and Parole Department has also implemented early terminations for people under supervision. Research suggests that supervision departments can incentivize behavior change by allowing people to earn reductions in their supervision terms without jeopardizing public safety. The department worked with the district attorney and the judiciary and got them on board with a plan that creates eligibility for termination after a person has served two years or 50% of their sentence in good standing.
Probation used to be something I feared. I didn’t want to have contact with my PO, because they were going to lock me up for any little thing. Now it’s like she’s there to help me.Jazmin Dietrich beneficiary of York County's community supervision reforms
Dietrich is one person who says she has benefited from York County’s new approach. In recent years, she endured the overdose death of a loved one and spent a stint in jail on drug charges. Her probation officer began encouraging her to get back into rehab, and Dietrich was finally willing to give it a serious try. In May, Dietrich celebrated one year clean. She has also been on probation for about a year, but today, she says, she and her probation officer have a close relationship, and she’s not expected to check in so often since she is employed and doing well.
“I look at my PO as my support system,” Dietrich says. “Probation used to be something I feared. I didn’t want to have contact with my PO, because they were going to lock me up for any little thing. Now it’s like she’s there to help me.”
These reforms have changed lives while supporting public safety in the county. The department has released over 1,000 people on early termination, and 95% have not returned with a new offense, whereas 73% of people on supervision in general do not return with a new offense. The county has slashed its supervision population from 12,000 to 7,000. Arrests have dropped, and so have violation reports.
Another success story is Hennepin County, Minnesota, which has also made significant efforts to overhaul drug testing in its pretrial, probation, and parole systems.
“How do we help people move towards the life they want to live?” asks Julie Rud, community corrections field services area director for Hennepin County. “Generally, that is a state of wellbeing — they’re happy, they’re healthy, they’re safe. Sometimes they just can’t see a way to get there.”
A local increase in overdose deaths during pandemic pushed the department to consider new, less punitive measures to address drug use. Driven by evidence supporting the use of medication-assisted treatment (MAT), they began to offer medication for opioid use in jails. They also began allowing MAT as part of probation, stopped drug testing for medications for which people have a valid prescription, and started limiting how results from drug tests go into a person’s case files.
Rud says this new approach required that probation officers have deep conversations with people under supervision about their needs and their histories. The department also worked with the judiciary to come to agreements about the conditions that allowed probation officers to respond to a positive drug test with treatment services first. Eventually, Hennepin County eliminated onerous fees attached to drug testing and probation.
“Paying to prove you are sober can exacerbate the conditions that drive people to use in the first place,” Rud says. “We don’t do it anymore.”
In time, Hennepin County has cut drug testing in half, from 1,000 samples per week before the pandemic to 500 samples per week today. While people under supervision are still engaging in treatment at similar rates, the county now issues violations of supervision at a drastically lower rate. First time violations solely for positive drug tests have decreased by 77%.
These tactics are paying off. Recidivism has dropped, from about a third of the supervision population committing a new crime before the reforms to about 20% today.
“We must meet people where they are in the moment”
Other jurisdictions have focused on improving pretrial supervision services. The City of New Orleans, for instance, has instituted a range of supportive services for people who are being supervised before trial. In the past, people out on bond pretrial lacked details about their cases, information on their court dates, and a connection to much-needed services. Many couldn’t get to court because they lacked childcare. Others struggled because they didn’t have access to transportation or could not take time off work. Still others suffered from untreated substance use, mental health needs, and homelessness.
Starting in 2013, New Orleans began making support available for people under supervision to inform them of their case status and assist with eliminating obstacles.
“The major goals with pretrial services are making sure people make it back to court and remain arrest-free,” says De’Anna LaVigne-Lawson, former director of the court’s pretrial services division.
Over the years, that support has evolved to take the form of mental health services, substance use treatment, and emergency temporary housing. It also meets lower-level needs: food, water, childcare, cell phones, bus tokens, and assistance with paperwork — all things that, LaVigne-Lawson says, improve people’s sense of dignity and ultimately help them show up for court dates.
“People have this idea that it takes a lot of money to add supportive services, but it doesn’t,” LaVigne-Lawson says. “We must meet people where they are in the moment. The services are vital because they give people options.”
In 2022, the court appearance rate was 99%, an improvement from previous years when the appearance rate consistently hovered around 90%. That same year, 89% of people in the system were not arrested on new charges. Prior to 2013, the parish jail population was around 7,000; today it is around 1,000.
“Pretrial reform is breaking the cycle of mass incarceration a little bit at a time,” LaVigne-Lawson says.
Another example is Pierce County, Washington, which has made efforts to build community partnerships and racial equity in its pretrial system — in which people of color are overrepresented, as in many other places across the country. Andrea Kelley, criminal diversion program manager for pretrial services in Pierce County, says that community members are often scared of the court system, which sometimes causes them not to come to court. People charged with crimes are afraid that they might be arrested, and victims don’t know what to expect at hearings.
Recently, Pierce County has begun its new Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research (APPR) project, with support from Arnold Ventures. That project provides technical and research assistance, bringing together working groups that include community members, people with lived experience of the justice system, researchers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, police, the judiciary, victim advocates, and others to identify inequities, determine inefficient processes, and work to develop new approaches that create a smoother court process for community members and address racial inequities.
Through this process, the county has changed its risk assessment process. The pretrial services division selected a locally validated risk assessment tool that includes the public safety assessment along with a client interview.
It has also developed a “process map” — a flowchart that shows how people move through the court system — to examine inefficiencies and look for ways to collect data. After having this tool reviewed by people who have been involved in the justice system, the county is now seeking to display the map in a way that will help those charged with crimes and their families better understand what to expect at each point in the system, from their first interaction with law enforcement through the disposition of their case.
If we can build transparency, then that’s where we’ll continue to have further partnership with the community.Andrea Kelley criminal diversion program manager for pretrial services in Pierce County
“If we can build transparency, then that’s where we’ll continue to have further partnership with the community,” Kelley explains. “It’s on our side to make the first step, to reach out. If we can prove our sincere intent of wanting participation and community input, then to me, that’s where those long-term relationships are built. And that’s where we end up having a better, more informed process.”
These innovations in probation, parole, and pretrial services go a long way toward making the systems fairer, more selective, and less restrictive alternatives to jail or prison — not to mention helping to reduce the system in both population and intensity.
For Dietrich, the new approach in York County was a chance to get back on her feet. Today, she works at a local diner and volunteers at her recovery center. Slowly, her life is changing.
She hopes that others under community supervision will have the experience she has.
“In York County, jail isn’t the answer now,” Dietrich says. “Now, it’s more like, if you’re an addict, they’ll get you to treatment. If there’s something they can do to make your life easier or help you get through a tough situation, they’ll do it.”