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Coronavirus Adds Urgency to Addressing the Nation’s Probation and Parole System. Pew Has 50 Ideas to Help.

The Pew Charitable Trusts just released more than 50 policy reform recommendations to reduce the probation and parole population and curb the number who wind up behind bars — right as localities and states are in dire need of action.

An incarcerated man cleans a cell pod to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the San Diego County Jail on April 24. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

On Aug. 19, Raymond Rivera was arrested and jailed in Rikers Island after failing to report to his parole officer. On April 4, Rivera was dead — a victim of COVID-19, which had spread through the New York City jail complex. 

The next day, a second man incarcerated in Rikers, Michael Tyson, died from the virus; he also had been sent there on a minor parole violation. 

Two men lost their lives after being charged with minor violations in a criminal justice system that routinely sends people under supervision back behind bars for technical reasons — missed curfews, failure to pay fees, missed appointments, failed drug tests.

As the nation grapples with a pandemic that has killed more than 61,000 people, criminal justice reform advocates are urging state and local governments to rethink how they handle community supervision. The first order of business is ensuring that people on supervision and their families are not exposed to the virus as a result of in-person reporting and other standard conditions of probation and parole. It’s also critical that more people don’t end up inside overcrowded prisons and jails — where the virus is spreading rapidly — if they miss those meetings or commit other rule violations.

We’ve got to make sure we’re not risking someone’s life over rule-breaking that is minor and could be addressed in the community,” said Amy Solomon, Vice President of Criminal Justice for Arnold Ventures. This is a real wake-up call for state and local policymakers.”

Just in time to address the urgency of this problem, The Pew Charitable Trusts — in partnership with Arnold Ventures — has released a policy framework for improving probation and parole systems across the country. With more than 50 recommendations, the report offers a roadmap for how state and local governments can safely decrease the number of people under supervision — of which there are 4.5 million, or 1 in 55 adults — and reduce the number that return to prison or jail for rule violations. 

These policies were developed before the COVID pandemic swept through and created new health and fiscal threats for corrections,” said Jake Horowitz, Director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project. They were made for a pre-COVID world, but they are more urgent and beneficial today.”

1 in 55
Number of adults under community supervision
Amount of prison admissions that are people who have been returned from probation and parole
Increase since 1980 in number of people under supervision

Today’s System

Probation and parole were originally intended to be less-punitive alternatives to incarceration, either at the front end with probation or the back end with parole. But over the past five decades, as the conditions placed on those under supervision have multiplied and acted as trip wires, these alternatives have become major contributors to overcrowded prisons and jails; 45 percent of prison admissions are people who have been returned from probation and parole, and a quarter of admissions are people held on technical violations.

The number of people under supervision has also exploded, increasing by 239 percent since 1980 and putting a strain on probation and parole agencies that often receive limited funding and have large caseloads and overburdened staff. Of those 4.5 million Americans on probation or parole, more than three-quarters are serving terms of supervision for nonviolent offenses, and at least 4 in 10 were sentenced for misdemeanor-level crimes.

We now have a very large system that overextends probation and parole agencies, despite the best efforts of the people who work within the system,” Horowitz said. That’s a problem, because when supervision fails — when people violate the terms of supervision and have their supervision revoked — probation and parole go from relatively cheap to very costly in a hurry.”

And a more expensive criminal justice system will find itself further strained as governments enter a recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Former New York City Probation Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi — who last year launched the organization Executives Transforming Probation and Parole (EXiT) — said he has seen a growing appetite among probation and parole chiefs to reform the system. 

They say, Stop sending us so many people; we can’t manage this many people! They’re low risk, but we still have to watch them. Stop putting us under pressure to violate them and return them to prison. Be more understanding, and let’s figure out a more nuanced way to do the thing that we call community supervision.’

I think the Pew report provides that level of nuance,” Schiraldi said.

A New Roadmap

That report is the brainchild of an advisory council convened by The Pew Charitable Trusts and Arnold Ventures and made up of people from across the justice system: prosecutors, judges, defense counsel, people who have been on probation, researchers, victims’ advocates, and probation and parole chiefs. The group reviewed evidence on best practices and came up with more than 50 recommendations, which are supported with examples of policy changes already adopted across the country. 

There’s no silver bullet here, but rather a compilation of common-sense, evidence-based solutions that differ from business-as-usual in most jurisdictions,” Solomon said. What’s game-changing is the buy-in we see from leaders across the justice system, from groups on the right and left, and from the major associations that represent community corrections. With that kind of support, we should make these policy recommendations a reality.”

What’s Working Now

Central to Pew’s report are examples of policy changes already adopted across the country; they make up much of the evidence behind the 50-plus recommendations. Here are just three ways that changes to probation and parole systems have helped state and local governments:

Louisiana in 2007 implemented a cap on the number of days a person can be sent to prison for failing to follow certain supervision rules. The result was successful — 2,000 fewer people spent time in jail or prison for technical violations a year, yielding the state a net savings of $17.6 million in corrections costs annually, all the while maintaining public safety — that the state later expanded its use of caps.

New York City instituted a more than five-fold increase in early discharges from probation — from 3 percent of all adult discharges in 2007 to 17 percent in 2012. It also files fewer technical violations than the rest of the state; in 2012, it had a 3 percent technical violation rate, compared to 11 percent in the rest of New York State. 

Missouri adopted an earned compliance program in 2012 that awards 30 days off supervision terms for every month that people on probation and parole comply with supervision conditions. An evaluation of the policy found no increase in reoffending after the policy took effect, and the supervised population shrank by 18 percent, or nearly 13,000 people. Overall, more than 36,000 people shortened their probation and parole sentences by an average of 14 months in the first three years of the law.

This menu of policies can be used by state and local decision-makers to reshape their own probation and parole programs. Recommendations include limiting the use of incarceration for technical violations, sentencing fewer people to supervision, reducing the length of supervision and the conditions placed on people, providing incentives for compliance, and rethinking the onus of fines and fees. 

While the recommendations were made with a pre-COVID-19 mindset, many are particularly urgent in light of the pandemic: using alternatives to in-person reporting to avoid exposure, deferring or forgiving payment of certain fines and fees, and eliminating incarceration for technical violations to avoid overcrowding and the spread of the virus.

If you have to pick who not to put in your facility, pick the ones in for not committing a new crime, for missing appointments, for staying out past dark, for associating with someone else with a felony record — stop putting them in your jails,” Schiraldi said.

State and local governments also need to be ready for the strain that a recession will place on already-stretched budgets. Reform experts believe there can be a significant savings from adopting many of the report’s recommendations. Supervision violations cost states more than $9.3 billion annually; technical violations account for $2.8 billion of that amount.

Clearly some of that can be saved to salve some of the wounds from this terrible economic crisis we’re in,” Schiraldi said.

There are fears among reform experts that state and local governments will instead react to the fiscal crisis in a way that hinders those on probation and parole.

Budget cuts are coming if they haven’t already hit in jurisdictions,” Horowitz said. And as corrections agencies think about how they can navigate these budget cuts with minimal disruption to their goals of reducing recidivism, they’ll be hampered if we go back to a status quo where revocation constitutes nearly half of prison admissions.”

Many probation and parole agencies also are going to be tempted to keep or raise the fees placed on those under supervision, Solomon said. And that would be a huge mistake. So many people were already struggling and have now lost their jobs, and to put another financial pressure that could pull them deeper into the justice system is just a real risk.”

What’s Next

Horowitz hopes state and local governments will take advantage of the report’s roadmap and begin to make changes; in the future, he plans to work with a number of jurisdictions to tailor some of the policy solutions identified in the report to them.

COVID takes something that was always needed, a set of policy solutions, and makes it more urgent,” Horowitz said. The promise of all this is that when jurisdictions get supervision right, there will be fewer people on it, those people will succeed more often, and fewer will end up back behind bars. That’s really the North Star that we set.”