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Q&A

From Tripwire to Lifeline: Reforming a Broken Probation and Parole System

A groundbreaking report reveals nearly 1 in 4 people any given day are incarcerated in state prison for violating probation or parole, costing states more than $9.3 billion a year. One state leader is overseeing sweeping changes to the system, with the goal of setting people up for success rather than failure.

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By Michael Hardy
ArnoldVentures.org Contributer

This week the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center released a groundbreaking report revealing that nearly 1 in 4 people any given day in America are incarcerated in state prison for violating the conditions of their probation or parole, costing states more than $9.3 billion each year. The report, which was funded by Arnold Ventures, also found that fully 45 percent of new prison admissions are due to probation or parole violations. Although some people violate their conditions of supervision by committing a new offense, about half wind up in prison after missing a visit to their community supervision officer or failing a drug test. These and other technical violations account for a quarter of all state prison admissions.

We discussed the new report with Anne Precythe, a national leader in criminal justice reform who has served since 2017 as Missouri’s director of the Department of Corrections, where she is overseeing sweeping changes to the state’s community supervision practices.

Criminal Justice

Confined and Costly

Probation and parole are designed to lower prison populations and help people succeed in the community. A new report shows they are having the opposite effect, filling prisons and burdening state budgets.

Read the Report
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Arnold Ventures

All too often, this report seems to suggest, community supervision functions not as a helpful guide out of the criminal justice system, but instead as a trap that ends up sending people back to prison.

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Anne Precythe

I started my corrections career as a probation officer in North Carolina, and that’s really what we did. We manipulated our caseload to keep 15 percent of our offenders “high-risk,” which is what the policy called for us to do. And we simply enforced the conditions imposed by the court. Now, in Missouri, we’re focused on making the conditions appropriate to the needs of the offender. The point of the conditions is to set the offender up for success rather than failure. It’s a totally different mindset. Getting staff on board with that is not that difficult—they understand, they just needed the right tools.

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Arnold Ventures

I knew a lot of people were in jail for probation violations, but I was shocked to learn from the report that it was nearly one in four state prison admissions nationwide.

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Anne Precythe

Probation and parole officers are stepping back and asking, what is the purpose of community supervision? What is it that I’m supposed to be doing? We want to involve the supervisor in a team approach to each individual offender, based on graduated consequences and incentives.

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Arnold Ventures

What kind of incentives are you talking about?

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Anne Precythe

It can be something as simple as verbal praise, all the way to having some of the conditions waived by the court. Some probation officers have “reward closets” where they have donated items they can give out to individuals who are doing well. It’s about knowing what’s important to each individual and using incentives accordingly. We have laminated cards with a series of incentives on one side and a series of consequences on the other side. We want to make sure we aren’t going straight to officers arresting someone. Maybe we’ll put them on a curfew to begin with, or maybe it’s just a verbal reprimand.

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Arnold Ventures

What are some of the things you learned in North Carolina that you’re now applying in Missouri?

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Anne Precythe

That community supervision is where you’re going to get the most bang for your buck. I always tell people, we can put all this money into our prison programming, but we need to have a good, solid handoff from what’s happening in prison to what’s happening in the community and with our community supervision officers. You can effect more change in people’s behavior while they’re under community supervision than you can when they’re in an institution. That’s where they get to practice in a real-world setting what they learned while they’ve been institutionalized. It’s more than just the conditions imposed by the court or parole board; it’s about changing behavior and sustaining that change.

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Arnold Ventures

The study also shows that sending people to prison for violating probation costs states a lot of money$2.6 billion for technical violations alone.

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Anne Precythe

Most definitely. The dollar amounts are staggering, especially considering the relatively brief sentences for these technical violations. These people aren’t safety threats—they just weren’t complying with their conditions imposed by the court or parole board. That’s why it’s important that we take all these smaller steps before we get to the point of sending someone back to jail. It saves the state a huge amount. And research says the longer you keep people in the community the more likely they are to be successful.

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Arnold Ventures

The report shows that Missouri is the state with the third-highest percentage of people in prison for violating probation or parole.

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Anne Precythe

Yes—that data is from 2017 and 2018, when we were developing our new programs and getting criminal justice reform legislation passed. Now that we’re rolling out our programs, I’m excited to see what our data looks like a year from now, 18 months from now, 24 months from now. It will be significantly different. We also now have legislation that supports the use of a valid risk instrument in parole evaluations. Yes, we have room for improvement, but the data will get better.

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Arnold Ventures

From your experience as a former community supervision officer, what are some of the biggest reasons people violate their probation conditions?

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Anne Precythe

Failing to report is one of the biggest. And that’s why probation officers, instead of just sitting behind a desk, need to be out in the community. We need to be checking out their home environment and seeing how they’re doing. Another one is failing to attend substance abuse treatment. Some individuals test positive for substances. Well, we know that relapse is part of recovery, so how can we engage with them to improve their treatment? There needs to be better communication between treatment counselors and probation officers so it doesn’t get to the point of sending the offender back to prison. If we sit back and wait to see the person until the end of the month, we miss 30 days of opportunity to keep them on track.

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Arnold Ventures

From the perspective of a community supervision officer, I would guess it’s more satisfying to help people rather than simply being part of a system designed to trap them.

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Anne Precythe

Oh yes. The majority of our staff are very excited about the changes. They knew this was the right thing to do, they just didn’t have the tools available. They didn’t have a behavior matrix, they didn’t have the control tools that could get people’s attention without sending them back to prison. They now have a tool belt with a full range of tools, rather than just a hammer.

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Arnold Ventures

Earlier, you said you get the most bang for your buck with probation. What do you mean?

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Anne Precythe

If you look at the cost of probation supervision, it’s far cheaper than a prison stay. It makes good fiscal sense to supervise individuals in the community rather than getting them right back into the prison system. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

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Arnold Ventures

Criminal justice reform seems to be one of the few issues in our current political environment where there’s a lot of bipartisan agreement. Has that been your experience?

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Anne Precythe

It most certainly has. When we passed our legislation in 2018, I spoke with almost every legislator in the state of Missouri. And almost every one, Democrat or Republican, knew someone who had gotten caught up in the criminal justice system, whether it was a family member, a former employee, a friend’s child. They all wanted to do something about criminal justice reform, but they didn’t know what to do. Everyone knows there has to be a better way to help people before they get tangled up in this system. We’ve got to change the way we think about this issue.