“An ineffective probation system can result in further criminal acts and the imprisonment of those same offenders before they complete their terms.”
Justice Fellowship’s latest report, Incentives in State Probation Systems: Relation to Structure and Practices, reveals why it’s a good idea to examine our probation systems.
The report examines some of the incentives that impact how certain states run their probation systems and highlights two factors that contribute to the effectiveness of those systems.
The first factor that could be working against probation effectiveness is this: probation agencies rarely publish the recidivism rates of former probationers.
If there’s any merit to the staying ‘what gets measured gets done,’ the problem with agencies failing to measure and publish the success rate of their former probationers is immediately obvious. If the goal of probation is to direct men and women away from crime, facilitating their transformation into engaged and contributing citizens, then agencies should be rewarded and commended by legislatures and the public for each individual who completes probation and remains crime-free.
State probation agencies should publish their success rates, enabling citizens to be confident that the probation practices used in their states are working.
The second factor contributing to probation system effectiveness is management.
Probation systems are managed differently across the states. It is beneficial to evaluate which methods produce the best results because, as the report notes, “Poorly-administered probation is a waste of time and money and fails to reduce crime.”
There are three main ways that probation is administered.
- The state department of corrections houses the probation agency.
- State and local governments share the responsibility of managing the agency.
- The courts run the agency.
In the first case, the report finds that states have an incentive to both over-use and underfund probation. In the second case, the state is pitted against the local governments, with both having an incentive to lower their costs by offloading offenders onto the other. According to the report, the third case creates the most beneficial incentives; probation agencies operated by the courts show greater emphasis on reforming offenders and reducing recidivism.
Why is this?
Courts have more independence, and judges tend to have long terms, and therefore longer outlooks, compared to top administrators in other government agencies. While court-run probation agencies tend to have better results, they achieve those results at a greater average cost, the report concludes.
Because probation can be a viable alternative to prison, structuring agencies in the judiciary and pushing them to measure and publish the success rate of former probationers seems to yield the best opportunity for success.