By Bennett, Lawrence A.
Corrections Today , Vol. 57, No. 1
The current crowding crisis in U.S. prisons and jails has forced criminal justice practitioners to explore alternative sanctions. This trend calls for research into the broad spectrum of sanctions available to decision-makers so they can determine appropriate punishments for offenders.
One of the most prevalent and long-standing intermediate sanctions, probation has become so accepted that criminal justice practitioners tend to forget its importance. According to various studies, probationers complete their probation obligation between 54 percent and 70 percent of the time. This success rate does not imply that all probationers become solid citizens, but it does show that they complete their court-ordered obligation.
Without probation, prisons and jails would be even more crowded than they already are. Unfortunately, budget cuts have translated into unmanageable case loads, with the result being that probationers get less service and violate their probation more often. California's 35 percent increase in prison admissions over the last six years for probation violations testifies to this problem.
Approximately 50 percent of probationers nationwide also receive prison time in their sentence. The tendency to combine sanctions is on the rise. California judges currently link prison time with probation 90 percent of the time, up from 50 percent in the 1960s and '70s. This change appears to be related to the public's demand that offenders be punished, even for minor offenses. But how successful is this technique in reducing offending behavior? Not very. My own research, using both national and California data, suggests that giving offenders jail time as a part of their probation leads to a higher level of rearrest.
Intensive Probation or Parole Supervision
Intensive probation or parole supervision programs (ISPs) incorporate a wide variety of activities that emphasize close monitoring, participation in community service programs, tight curfews, steady employment and drug testing. ISPs usually are applied to offenders who have not committed violent crimes and who do not suffer from unusual disorders, such as the emotionally disturbed and sex offenders.
According to studies of ISPs in Georgia, Massachusetts and New Jersey, ISPs are effective. The successful reduction of recidivism that resulted from these activities points to the need to combine both surveillance and control strategies as well as delivering various types of service.
In Georgia, the number of probation officer-to-probationer contacts was very high, usually four or five contacts a week, not including community service monitoring and employment verification. Special measures verified that those selected for the program were offenders who would ordinarily be sent to prison. The positive outcome suggested considerable cost savings along with satisfactory probation adjustment without high levels of serious reoffending.
In Massachusetts, the target group consisted of offenders who were classified as high risks for failure within the near future. Probation officers developed specific intervention strategies on a case-by-case basis and contacted each probationer at least 10 times a month, verified employment twice a month, and rigorously monitored and enforced probation conditions.
In New Jersey, ISP was used to take felony offenders out of prison and put them under probation supervision. Although the administrative process was quite cumbersome, the researchers concluded that the program was more cost effective than imprisonment and parole and that it freed up prison beds without increasing recidivism.
Recent Rand Corporation studies, however, have revealed that it is often difficult to establish and maintain intensive supervision programs. They found little difference in outcomes between those under intensive supervision and those under regular supervision where adequate probation was generally available. …