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Pima County, home to Tuscon, Arizona, is among the pilot sites for the second phase of the Reducing Revocations Challenge. Action Research Teams will implement strategies based off of their jurisdiction-specific research. (Getty Images)

The Revolving Door: Probation, Incarceration, and the Opportunity for Reform

The Reducing Revocations Challenge is identifying what causes probation revocations and piloting innovative solutions.

For most people, missing a scheduled appointment, forgetting to update your address, or being late to a meeting doesn’t result in major consequences. For people on probation, any one of those things — and dozens more like them — could land them in prison or jail.

In 2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that there were 4.4 million people on probation in the United States. Almost all of them are subject to onerous, complex, and often unnecessary terms of supervision that define their day-to-day life. Included in the long list of conditions are things like being at regular appointments even if they conflict with job or childcare responsibilities; maintaining residence in a particular neighborhood even if it would make more sense to live elsewhere; missing a phone call with a supervision officer; and getting home before an arbitrary curfew even if there is traffic on the way there. Combined with the justice system’s unflinching expectation of near-perfect compliance, these conditions make it all too easy for people to violate the terms of their probation sentence, resulting in revocation.

“Probably most of us would not be able to comply with every condition if we were on probation,” said Reagan Daly, research director of CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance (ISLG).

This is how probation has become, for far too many people, a revolving door to jail or prison.

In fact, almost a quarter of all prison admissions are the result of these sorts of probation revocations. Roughly half of those admissions stem from technical violations — acts that do not involve a new crime. Yet, research shows not enough attention is paid to these revocations.

But in some jurisdictions, that’s beginning to change.

A Deep Dive on Outcomes, Practices

ISLG launched the Reducing Revocations Challenge (RRC) in 2019. The goal was to help 10 jurisdictions — from Cook County, Illinois, to Santa Cruz County, California — better understand what’s driving probation failures and craft innovative solutions that decrease the number of people revoked from probation. By creating partnerships — called Action Research Teams — between probation departments and researchers, the challenge created an infrastructure to help gain a clear understanding of what is causing revocations and, importantly, how to minimize them.

ISLG recently released findings from the first phase of the Action Research Teams’ work identifying the drivers of revocations. These findings revealed new information that will be critical in shaping impactful policy reforms. For example, in some instances, supervision officers issue violations as a way to re-engage with people they supervise, with no intention of actually revoking them back to prison. Yet these violations can and sometimes do lead to carceral punishments. Now, AV is supporting five of these teams to pilot targeted solutions in a just-launched second phase of the challenge that will allow Action Research Teams to implement strategies based off of their jurisdiction-specific research.

“One of the real valuable aspects of this work is that our sites were able to go very deep into probation outcomes and practices in a way that not a lot of research does,” said Daly.

Some of the findings reaffirm what is already known about probation issues, like how it’s harder for people with complicated needs to comply, Daly said. This includes people with mental health challenges, substance abuse issues, or people who may be experiencing homelessness, are unemployed, or have family issues.

Racial and ethnic disparities also exist in probation outcomes, just as they exist throughout the criminal legal system. Across many sites, Black people were disproportionately more likely to have a violation filed or have their probation revoked compared to white people. Troy Hatfield, Assistant Chief Probation Officer in Monroe County, Indiana, said his jurisdiction found that Black males are about twice as likely to have a formal violation filed against them as white males.

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Black males are about twice as likely to have a formal probation violation filed against them as white males in Monroe County, Indiana.

“We would never know that had this research not been conducted. Now that we know, we can adopt strategies to help correct that issue,” Hatfield said.

Leah Bower, research and evaluation supervisor at Ramsey County Community Corrections in Minnesota, said many of the revocations in her county were coming from violations for failure to maintain contact with a probation officer. “That’s something we’re going to be digging into,” she said. “Is it absconding? Is it missing an appointment? What’s going on and what could we do to help people stay engaged with probation?”

Prince Corbett, the racial and health equity administrator for Ramsey County Community Corrections, believes that more community engagement can help address this problem. He was previously incarcerated and spent two-and-a-half years on supervised release; he has seen first-hand how many life factors make it difficult for people to succeed on probation.

“If there are any hiccups, if that person doesn’t feel comfortable, or if there is a housing situation where a person loses their housing but doesn’t tell their PO because they feel like if they don’t have a place to stay, they’re going to be issued a violation,” he said. “A community advocate could help that person have a conversation with their supervision officer and ultimately be successful on probation.”

More ‘Goal-Focused’ Conditions

Many of the probation departments in the RRC are also looking to amend probation conditions to make them “less rule focused and more goal focused,” Hatfield said. For example, instead of telling someone to avoid all substances, the condition could say that the person has to work toward sobriety.

“Instead of a probation officer looking at all the ways somebody is breaking rules, they’re going to start looking at progress towards goals,” Hatfield said.

Hatfield said Monroe County intends to increase the use of incentives and reinforcements for positive behavior and consider offering early termination of probation. “It’s permitted but it’s rarely used in our county, and we want to explore why not,” he said.

Finally, sites will rethink how they respond to people on probation who are alleged to have committed another criminal offense and will consider whether the new allegation is serious enough to automatically warrant a violation or revocation. Currently, jurisdictions handle new criminal allegations differently. In Monroe County, for example, officers are required to file a violation for any new alleged offense, while in Pulaski County, Arkansas, it is required only for felony offenses.

“One of our takeaways is that if you really want to make a dent in revocations and increase success, you have to look at violations and revocations that are linked to alleged new criminal activities in addition to technical violations, because new crime violations are a big driver of revocations,” Daly said.

One of the most critical elements in Phase II will be an explicit focus on racial equity in probation and probation outcomes. ISLG is going to be working with Action Research Teams to ensure they are identifying and focusing on racial equity goals and thinking about solutions that will advance success overall without exacerbating disparities. To help sites navigate this process, the Center for Children’s Law & Policy will be providing both strategy-specific guidance and support, and delivering broader learning sessions to help ground sites’ work in the broader context of structural racism in the criminal legal system.

“Do we need jail or incarceration as sanctions or can we come up with other ways to address behavior to keep people in the community and help them back on course?” Bower asked. Phase II addresses the research needed to answer that question.

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