Reinventing Parole and Probation

By DiIulio, John J., Jr. | Brookings Review, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Reinventing Parole and Probation


DiIulio, John J., Jr., Brookings Review


No one - at least no one in elite policy-wonk circles - is a bigger fan of incarcerating known, adjudicated adult and juvenile criminals than I am. No one has written more over the years about the cost-effectiveness of incarceration as measured both in terms of its crime-reduction value and in terms of doing justice. Still, when it comes to the search for rational, workable crime policies, it's time to admit that the brain-dead law-and-order right is no better than the soft-in-the-head anti-incarceration left. More and more conservatives now favor abolishing parole, sharply curtailing probation, imprisoning every adult felon for his or her entire term, and warehousing juvenile offenders in adult jails. The prudent response, however, is not to abolish probation and parole, but to reinvent them.

First, let's get crystal clear on the grim facts about crime, prisons, probation, and parole. Be giddy about recent drops in national crime rates if you wish, but each year Americans still suffer some 40 million criminal victimizations; about a quarter of these are violent crimes. Only about 1 in 100 crimes actually results in anyone getting caught, convicted, and sentenced to prison. Most felony defendants are repeat offenders; yet most felony defendants are sentenced not to prison but to probation.

Likewise, a half-dozen studies prove beyond a reasonable doubt what every veteran policeman knows: most prisoners are not petty, nonviolent thieves or mere first-time, low-level drug offenders. Yet most of these hardened criminals are still paroled well before they have served out their latest sentence behind bars. On any given day in America, there are three convicted adult criminals out on probation or parole for every one in prison - and many of these are indistinguishable (in terms of their violent and repeat criminal histories) from those who remain in prison. As for juvenile offenders, between 1989 and 1993 the number of adjudicated juvenile cases that resulted in probation rose by 17 percent. The number of probation cases involving a "person offense" - such as homicide, rape, robbery, or assault - soared by 45 percent.

Literally dozens of careful studies document that probation and parole are, to put it mildly, failing to protect the public. Nearly half of all state prisoners in 1991 had committed their latest crimes while out on probation or parole. While formally "under supervision" in the community, their "violations" included more than 13,000 murders, some 39,000 robberies, and tens of thousands of other crimes. More than a quarter of all felons charged with gun crimes in 1992 were out on probation and parole. Here, too, what's true for the revolving-door adult system is even more true for the no-fault juvenile system. In many cities, for example, most cases involving violent older teen thugs who get referred to adult court result in probation. Kids plea bargain too.

GETTING WHAT WE PAY FOR

Why are the adult and juvenile probation systems so poor, and what, realistically, can be done to improve them - soon?

A big part of the answer is that we spend next to nothing on the systems, and get about what we pay for. Take adult probation. Joan R. Petersilia, former director of RAND's criminal-justice research program, has calculated that we currently spend about $200 per probationer for supervision. "It is no wonder," she notes, "that recidivism rates are so high." Likewise, Patrick A. Langan, a statistician with the U.S. Justice Department, has found that more than 90 percent of probationers are supposed to get substance abuse counseling, pay victim restitution, or meet other requirements. But about half do not comply with the terms of their probation. Probation sanctions, he concludes, "are not rigorously enforced."

But how could they be properly supervised by overworked, underpaid probation officers with scores of cases to manage? As Petersilia argues, even probationers who are categorized as high-risk offenders receive little direct, face-to-face oversight. …

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