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Less Is More: How Reducing Probation Populations Can Improve Outcomes

NCJ Number
Michael P. Jacobson; Reagan Daly; Vincent Schiraldi; Emily Hotez
Date Published
August 2017
18 pages
One in a series of papers from the Harvard Kennedy School Executive Session on Community Corrections, this paper develops the argument that the significant growth in the number of offenders placed on probation supervision in the past several decades in the United States should be reversed.
In many respects, the rationale for this argument for downsizing the probation population mirrors the argument against mass incarceration. In most jurisdictions, probation is a punitive system that intends to elicit compliance from offenders primarily through the enforcement of probation conditions, such as fines and fees. In many cases. these monetary punishments cannot be met by probationers, which elicits additional punishment for noncompliance; this is typically incarceration, with its additional adverse effects; i.e., job loss, separation from family, and housing instability. This paper describes the nature and impact of probation reform and downsizing in New York City between 1996 and 2014. First, the number of probationers decreased by about two-thirds; and simultaneously, there were large declines in the use of jail and prison, as well as the city's crime rates. Second, among those on supervision, all assessed as low risk were assigned to electronic kiosk reporting instead of face-to-face meetings with probation personnel. This was accompanied by early discharge for those who met the criteria for successful compliance for at least 18 months. Third, persons on probation received sentences much lower than the maximum allowed under state law. Fourth, the violation rate for those on probation declined 3.1 percent, a fraction of the state average. Finally, probation resources increased for rehabilitative services to those probationers rated at higher risk. 2 figures and 40 references