Transforming Probation Through Leadership: The “Broken Windows” Model
OVER FOUR MILLION PROBATIONERS IN OUR MIDST AND GROWING!
Thirty-one million Americans were victimized by crime in 1998 (Rennison 1999). Yet, criminal victimizations of individuals are the lowest they have been since such information began to be collected through the National Crime Victimization Survey in 1973. Even more, violent crime rates have fallen nationally by 27 percent since 1993 (Rennison 1999). While this decline represents a welcome reversal to the steady escalation in crime rates during the past 30 years, it masks the unprecedented long-term growth in violent crime, especially in urban areas. The problem of crime continues to impact dramatically on citizens’ quality of life.
Some of the drop in crime is undoubtedly due to so-called “broken windows” law enforcement and community policing. The former draws from a metaphor first introduced by Wilson and Kelling in 1982 in an article entitled “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety.” The term explained how small disorders and breakdowns in civic norms, if left unattended, contribute in time to larger social disorders and serious crime. It called for the police to focus more of their attention on addressing disorderly behavior, especially in public spaces, and in partnership with the community, on attending to the standards and quality of neighborhood life.
Consistent with the prescriptions of “broken windows,” a new community-policing paradigm has emerged that emphasizes a proactive, problem-solving, order maintaining role for the police, not just enforcement alone. This approach views citizens as partners in crime control, as well as customers of the services police provide. The community policing movement, which is underway in numerous urban centers including New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, and Baltimore, displays considerable variation in practice. It is credited, however, with effectively combating crime by working with and through communities, and by engaging the citizenry in the mission and practice of policing (Kelling and Coles, 1996; Nicholl 1999).
In Boston and other cities, probation departments have also helped cut crime, both on their own and in partnerships with police, community groups and members of the clergy. These efforts while laudable remain all too often at the margins of probation practices. If probation is going to contribute its fair share in keeping crime on the run and in restoring order or maintaining the quality of neighborhood life, it will need to do far more than it has done to date. If it is to make a significant and lasting contribution to crime reduction in communities across the country, it must begin by doing a much better job of supervising the nearly three and one-half million adult probationers and over one-half million juvenile probationers in our midst. This will require an enduring and affirmative commitment to “broken windows” probation.
This monograph represents the work of a baker’s dozen of veteran practitioners, including several present or former leaders of the National Association of Probation Executives (NAPE) and American Probation and Parole Association (APPA), who met and deliberated independently over the past two years in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. The focus of our group’s deliberations was on the systemic deficiencies of probation, and what strategies needed to be developed to revitalize probation as a critical and valued component of the criminal justice system (Beto 1999). The first product of our efforts was the release of a Manhattan Institute report entitled “Broken Windows” Probation: The Next Step in Fighting Crime (Reinventing Probation Council). This report was issued at a press conference on August 19, 1999, in New York City and distributed thereafter at the annual NAPE meeting and the APPA National Training Institute, also in New York City.
At the start, it is important to revisit and summarize the consensus of the baker’s dozen that evolved during the group’s deliberations. In essence, we believe that probation is at once the most troubled and the most promising part of America’s criminal justice system. The Council also believes, perhaps even more strongly, that probation’s past troubles can be but a prologue to its coming triumphs. This monograph calls for a new era of “broken windows” probation. It admits, perhaps more candidly than leading members of the profession have ever acknowledged, that widespread political and public dissatisfaction with the state of probation has often been fully justified.
The Council’s members firmly believe that the timing is right for those in the field to embrace and share accountability for taking on the daunting task of reengineering current probation practices. What follows presents a new framework and rationale for doing so, as well as comprehensive strategies, and examples of programs that illustrate various elements of the “Broken Windows Probation” model in practice. There is also a discussion of what steps need to be considered by those in the field who may have an interest in reinventing their own agency in the direction suggested by the model. Though much of the analysis centers on adult felony probation, the comments are applicable to the supervision of juvenile offenders who are adjudicated and given probation as a disposition. A sizeable number of the programs that are highlighted in this monograph refer to innovative and community-focused juvenile supervision practices.
This monograph is sure to attract criticism from those who say the proposals are too soft on criminal offenders, as well as from those who say they are too tough. To those outside of the probation profession who respond that the rationales and strategies for change are too little, too late, and to those who cynically advocate abolishing probation, the Council’s response is, “Get Real!” Taxpayers will not finance what their ideas would imply, tripling the size of the U.S. prison system and expanding juvenile corrections to accommodate the four million plus offenders now on probation. To those within the profession who respond that the proposed changes and ideas concede too much to the field’s many critics and to popular misunderstandings of probation, the Council’s response is, “Wake Up!” As this monograph shows, nearly one out of every five adult felony defendants charged with crimes of violence was on probation at the time they committed their crime. A significant percentage of weapons offenders confined in state prisons across the country were on probation at the time of their admission. The public wants to reduce violent crime NOW. They want to feel safe in their communities and neighborhoods NOW. The Council believes that if probation is to be part of the solution the days of “fortress” (that is, office-bound) supervision must give way to a new era of politically and administratively successful community or “broken windows” probation.
The Council’s members believe that probation has reached a critical turning point in its history. Probation leaders can no longer wait for major shifts or increases in funding or resources to flow their way. They must be willing to take the first steps on their own, with or without new support, and they must demonstrate positive results NOW, under present conditions and in the environments in which they labor daily. They must be willing to fully assume responsibility for creating credible supervision strategies that the public and other critical stakeholders value. They must, in essence, chart a course for the present and the future that establishes the worth of their work and then challenge others to furnish greater support if the desire is there to sustain and expand upon the contributions and accomplishments of probation.
The options and the consequences are clear for probation practitioners. Either probation will be at the political and intellectual core of future policy-oriented efforts to promote public safety and offender rehabilitation in America, or it will continue to be widely devalued, ineffective and woefully under-funded. We hope this monograph not only sparks both professional and public debate, but also sharply enhances civic awareness that “probation matters” thereby launching spirited efforts to “make probation work” in cities across the country.
WHY PROBATION MATTERS
Probation enjoys a unique status within the criminal justice system. Each year ushers in a “new high” in the number of offenders either incarcerated or in the community under supervision, and each year probation serves as the disposition most often imposed by the courts. At the end of 1998, a record breaking total of 5.9 million offenders were under some form of correctional supervision — in prison, in jail, on probation or on parole. Of these, 3,417,613 were adults serving a probation sentence, or just under 60 percent of the entire adult offender population. Since 1990 the probation population has increased by 28 percent (Bonczar and Glaze 1999). In terms of juvenile offenders, a total of 634,100 delinquency cases were adjudicated and given a probation term during 1996 (the most recent year for which figures are available (Snyder and Sickmund 1999)).
This means on any given day there are over four million probationers living in communities across the land. With respect to adult offenders, more than one-half of them have been convicted of felony violations of the law. Though they are expected to abide by the rules of probation or other special conditions of supervision, their range of freedom is comparable to that enjoyed by the citizenry at large. They may move about within their neighborhoods, go to the movies, shop, go to work, visit parks and pursue other activities that form the fabric of daily living. How these offenders are supervised impacts on public safety. Even more, the effectiveness of supervision contributes directly to the quality of community life.
As the primary sentencing disposition of the justice system affecting both adult and juvenile offenders, probation is best positioned strategically to contribute to public safety and community well being. As a matter of social policy, probation occupies the borderland between law enforcement and human services. As a justice system sanction, probation is invested with wide-ranging leverage to influence the conduct of offenders. Its strength lies in its authority and capacity to repair broken lives and hold offenders accountable for the harm their actions have caused to victims and communities.
Probation need not be a walk away or a “get-out-of-jail” card for the offender. Probation is the paramount community-based sanction of the justice system. The breadth of its authority allows it to impose significant and demanding accountability from offenders under supervision. By forming significant partnerships with others: law enforcement, the courts, human service agencies, community and neighborhood groups, the faith community, and local stakeholders, probation strengthens immeasurably its capacity to provide effective intervention relative to public safety and offender reform.
Needless to say, developing such partnerships will require a fundamental transformation in how probation conducts its business. Achieving the full value of probation as a critical component of social policy will necessitate civic and political support. In relation to the practice of probation, it will require that a long-term commitment be made to investing in and restoring the community to the business of offender supervision. Acting on these imperatives must begin first by addressing the current state of the field and then by forming strategies for action that are responsive to the reinvention of probation.
Why Probation is Not Working
The first and perhaps most critical step towards meaningful change is for those within the field to acknowledge what is wrong with current practices, and to engage in an honest and compelling self-critique that confronts squarely what ails probation. It is necessary to recognize that probation is demonstrably in crisis and to assess the nature of that crisis before turning to those principles, strategies and practices that may assist in the reinvention of the field.
The Crisis of Legitimacy in the Justice System
A critical assessment of probation must begin by placing its ailments within the more encompassing and deeper crisis of legitimacy affecting the entire system of justice (LaFree 1998). For nearly three decades, public and political commentators have expressed a heightened anxiety about the problem of crime. Such discourse has been rooted in what Simon (1998) calls a “populist punitiveness” reflecting fear, moralism and a belief in the need to restore punishment as the centerpiece of crime control policy. In most, if not all states, criminal code reforms have been adopted emphasizing mandatory minimum terms, enhanced penalties for violent and repeat offenders, “three-strikes and you’re out” legislation and a growing commitment to “truth-in-sentencing.” Though sentencing systems at the state level are showing signs of fragmenting, there remains broad support for crime control policies that incorporate the core features of retributive justice (Tonry 1999). These reforms in the criminal code are premised on the widespread belief that punishment and incapacitation are the only appropriate goals in a system apparently unable to change offenders’ criminality.
A comparable challenge is underway in the system of juvenile justice. Since the early 1990s, most states have shifted or considered shifting the mission and focus of their juvenile justice systems toward the goal of public safety and an increased reliance on incapacitation (Torbett 1996). A majority of states now have bind-over provisions for juveniles age 14 and even younger, enhanced penalties and mandatory terms of confinement for youth who commit serious acts of violence. These changes reflect a growing commitment to greater determinacy in juvenile dispositions. Juvenile code changes that resemble adult criminal sanctions are being adopted at an unprecedented pace and with a minimum of public debate or political controversy (Feld 1998).
The current crisis in criminal and juvenile justice is fueled by the public’s conviction that the system no longer represents an effective response to the problem of crime. Despite the recent and welcome drops in the crime rate, the citizenry continues to express a widespread fear of crime and a deep skepticism over the justice system’s capacity to provide reasonable assurances of public safety. The crisis in probation has unfolded within and been exacerbated by the striking and corrosive cynicism directed especially at the criminal justice system. Given the dismal results of recent public opinion surveys regarding the performance or effectiveness of probation, it is evident that the field lacks convincing strategies that convey how the public safety risk offenders present can be managed in a credible fashion while they are under supervision in the community.
The monograph focuses on this credibility problem while offering promising new strategies and practices to drive the reinvention of probation. What follows next addresses more specifically why probation is not working as evidenced by the high rates of probationer re-offending and their substantial non-compliance with the rules of probation while they are under community supervision. The discussion offers a critical assessment of the breakdown in how probation supervision is carried out, especially the desk-bound retreat on the part of field staff to the office setting. The chapter closes by commenting on the impact of current funding levels on the practice of probation.
Poor to Dismal Probationer Performance
In an article addressing the crisis in probation, Beto, Corbett, and DiIulio (2000) argue that probation executives must challenge the tendency to normalize relatively high levels of violence, or to use a phrase coined by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to “define deviancy down.” As they point out, the public has become so accustomed to high levels of crime and violence it now takes a bloodbath to arouse civic and moral passion. As welcome as the recent post-1993 drop in crime is, the level of crime currently experienced is still over twice the crime level shown in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They argue that probation executives must play a leadership role in “defining crime back up,” that is, in promoting a candid view of its seriousness. These same executives should encourage other criminal justice system professionals to join in this dialogue.
According to Beto, Corbett, and DiIulio (2000), the experience of many veteran probation officials suggests that most probationers have rather sobering criminal histories. During its deliberations over the course of the past two years, several members of the Reinventing Probation Council expressed the belief that most probationers commit another crime within three years of receiving their sentence. The best available empirical evidence seems to support their conviction. In the Council’s view, there is a need to respond effectively to the challenge of probationer recidivism. In this, it is vital to confront the scope and seriousness of the problem of reoffending by probationers. In doing so, it becomes evident that at best the overall performance of probationers ranges from poor to dismal.
One of the most incisive studies of probationer recidivism, and thus their performance under supervision, was conducted in the mid-1980s by the RAND Corporation (Petersilia, et al. 1985). The researchers closely tracked samples of probationers in two California counties — Alameda and Los Angeles. One of the most realistic and relevant of analyses on this topic, the findings showed that nearly 65 percent of probationers were arrested for a felony or misdemeanor during their probation terms; 51 percent were convicted of a new crime during their probation terms; and, within 40 months of receiving their sentences, 34 percent had been incarcerated for probation violations or for new crimes. In addition, 18 percent of these offenders were reconvicted of serious violent crimes, while 75 percent of the official charges that were filed involved burglary/theft, robbery and other violent crimes. The study concluded that felons granted probation in California presented a serious threat to public safety.
It is notable that the arrest rate of 65 percent was for a period when state probation caseloads were just starting to soar in California and other states. By the early 1990s, for example, probation caseloads were so huge — over 500 per officer — that some 60 percent of Los Angeles probationers were tracked solely by computer and had no face-to-face contacts with a probation officer.
Recall that the RAND study measured the performance of probationers from California over a three-year period of time. Another study in 1992 by U.S. Department of Justice researchers reported that 43 percent of probationers were rearrested for a felony within three years of receiving a probation sentence. Overall, 46 percent of probationers were classified as “failures.” This study remains one of the few systematic attempts to gather information on the criminal histories of probationers and ex-probationers in the field (Langan and Cunniff 1992).
In terms of public safety, about two-thirds of probationers commit another crime within three years of their sentence. Many of these crimes involve serious acts of violence. The roughly 162,000 probationers returned to state prisons and incarcerated in 1991 were responsible for at least 6,400 murders, 7,400 rapes, 10,400 assaults and 17,000 robberies. Likewise, records show that 156 of the 1,411 persons convicted of murder in Virginia from 1990-1993 were on probation at the time they killed (Bennett, DiIulio and Walters 1996). Sometimes, probation absconders show up with other probationers and recent ex-probationers as felony defendants in new court cases. For example, the federal government’s pretrial reporting data on the nation’s 75 largest urban counties indicate that nearly one in five felony defendants arrested, and 15 percent of felony defendants charged with a violent crime, were on probation at the very time they committed the new crime (Reaves and Smith 1995). If probation had done a better job, fewer people would have been killed or otherwise harmed by probationers, and the overall crime rate would have been lower.
In California and nationally, the fraction of all persons on probation for so-called person offenses — murder, rape, robbery, and assault — has risen. Today, 57 percent of all probationers are “felony probationers,” and in Massachusetts and many other states about half of all probationers have a history of criminal violence. (Bonczar and Glaze 1999) With burgeoning caseloads, more dangerous offenders and a notable decline in face-to-face contacts between probation officers and those they supervise, it is unlikely that the actual amount of crime committed by probationers, arrested or not, is less today than it was 15 years ago, either in California or elsewhere (Beto, Corbett, and DiIulio 2000).
Of those offenders placed on probation, the long-term trend indicates that an ever smaller percentage complete their terms of supervision successfully. In 1986, of those who exited probation, 74 percent did so successfully. In 1990, 69 percent of those who exited probation successfully completed their terms. This figure dropped to 59 percent in 1998 (Petersilia 1997; Bonczar and Glaze 1999). Though failure rates on probation are not always synonymous with the commission of new crimes during the term of supervision, as Petersilia first pointed out 15 years ago, felons on probation today continue to pose a serious threat to public safety.
Beto, Corbett, and DiIulio (2000) emphasize the importance of dealing with crimes committed by probationers. They define crime as any act prohibited and punishable by law, not just any act for which one is arrested, incarcerated, or otherwise legally sanctioned. They too estimate that roughly two-thirds of probationers reoffend or commit another crime within three years of their sentence. They base their estimate, one which several Council members share, on the arrest rates reported in the best jurisdiction-specific research; the fact that half of all probationers violate the terms of their sentence with another crime; and, the presence of recent ex-probationers who figure prominently on arrest rolls, in plea-bargain-gorged felony courts, and in prisons, all for another crime.
It is evident that the frequency and scale of probationer recidivism represents an issue that carries decisive consequences for the well being of communities across the country. In view of their pivotal position in the justice system, probation executives must play a critical role in confronting the crime problem and in promoting a view of probationer recidivism that recognizes the threat such offenders present to public safety. Even more, the leadership in probation must demonstrate a willingness to “embrace accountability” (Moore 1995) for taking meaningful actions both within the system of justice and through the community to tackle the commission of crimes by probationers.
If these efforts are to achieve credibility with the public, in the view of Beto, Corbett, and DiIulio (2000), we should expect only a maximum of 10 percent of all probationers to commit another crime within three years of a probationary sentence. Embracing this goal as a benchmark against which to measure the performance of the field serves as a bold yet necessary step in addressing the crisis afflicting probation.
Assuming ownership for confronting the challenge of recidivism by probationers is vital to the effort to build credibility for the profession. There is another step, however, that those in the field must take if their actions are to represent an informed and effective response to what ails probation. They must acknowledge candidly the extent to which the traditional strategies and supervision practices adopted by practitioners far too often fail to curb or effectively manage the risk probationers present while in the community. They must admit that probation as currently practiced does not serve as a valued criminal justice sanction to key players and decision makers within the system, nor to the larger citizenry.
The Breakdown of Supervision
Critics of probation have long charged that it has failed to promote public safety, enforce court orders and secure for criminals residing in the community the drug treatment or other help they need to remain crime-free and succeed in life. Some probation administrators have developed innovative and effective supervision strategies in response to these concerns, as several of the programs highlighted later in this monograph show. These initiatives offer promising alternatives to maintaining the status quo. They do not, however, represent typical probation practice. It is the view of the Reinventing Probation Council that all too often the critics of probation stand on solid ground.
What are some of the more widespread practices in the field of probation that undermine its capacity to provide effective intervention and supervision? Again, it is important to point out that there are agencies that represent notable exceptions to such practices. However, too many agencies and probation officers adopt strategies and methods of supervision that permit offenders to return to their communities with anonymity and a nearly total absence of accountability.
Clearly, offenders on probation have a responsibility to comply with the conditions of supervision. When they do not, then it is up to probation to enforce compliance with such terms. It is here though that the practice of probation frequently breaks down. As Clear and Cole (1990) point out, once a person is granted a term of probation, it is not the case that they will be held accountable or removed from the community for serious misbehavior or even for failing to maintain contact with their probation officer. The enforcement of the conditions of probation remains all too often sporadic and ineffectual. Over 90 percent of probationers are ordered by the courts to get substance abuse counseling, abide by house arrest, perform community service or meet other court-ordered conditions. Unfortunately, studies have found that nearly half of all probationers do not comply with the terms of their sentence, and only a fifth of those who violate their sentences ever go to jail for their noncompliance (Langan 1994).
The track record with respect to those who abscond from probation is even worse. Probation absconders not only fail to comply with the terms of their court order, they do not even stay in contact with their probation officer. The latest national survey of probationers reveals that ten percent of them — about 340,000 persons in 1998 — have officially “absconded,” a euphemism for probation violators who have failed to keep in touch with their probation officer and whom the system makes little effort to find, serve with warrants, or otherwise bring to justice (Bonczar and Glaze 1999). While on absconder status, these offenders remain out of contact with probation, out of compliance with court orders and out from under any control or monitoring. In too many jurisdictions, next to nothing is being done to apprehend these scofflaws, a number of whom are “hiding in plain view.” The lesson is not lost on new probationers, who may find their obligations too onerous: Stop complying — they will not come after you. If the remedy to this problem is partnering with sheriff’s departments or the local police to enforce warrants, it is a solution that is yet to be widely adopted.
With respect to programmatic intervention, the efforts of probation are frequently ineffective in helping probationers avoid drugs, learn to read, obtain jobs or otherwise reconnect their lives with prosocial peers and others. Research data indicate that almost half of today’s probationers were under the influence of alcohol or drugs when they committed their latest offense. Practitioners in the field have long argued that probationers need to obtain community-based substance abuse treatment. But only 37 percent of all probationers nationwide participate in any type of drug treatment program during their supervision, and only 32.5 percent nationally are tested for drug use once they do receive treatment (Bonczar 1997). Yet, a substantial body of research shows that effective drug treatment curbs the likelihood of reoffending (National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse 1998).
Perhaps the most widespread and damning practice is the extent to which probation supervision is carried out from within the confines of an office. Referred to by the Reinventing Probation Council as “fortress” or “bunker probation,” this style of supervision relies on office-bound interactions with probationers, mostly during the working weekday hours of 8:00 a.m. — 5:00 p.m., to gather information and monitor offender compliance. It is estimated that probation officers spend an average of five to twenty minutes once a month with offenders in an office setting where they are dependent on the offenders to give them truthful and accurate information regarding their activities. Very little, if any, time is spent supervising offenders in the neighborhoods where they live, work, and play (Bonczar 1997).
This passivity in case management results not just in offender anonymity, but the absence of a visible presence in the communities and neighborhoods probation officers are assigned to serve. Given the operational culture of many agencies, probation officers place a paramount emphasis on administrative paperwork and processing required reports. Increasingly, managerial and organizational demands reward the timely submission of reports and the ability to document minimum compliance with the contact standards for supervision, not outcomes that contribute to public safety. As Smith and Dickey (1998) point out, this produces a passivity in supervision that elevates an approach to case management they refer to as “harvesting the failures.” In a passage that has great resonance for many probation agencies across the country, they state:
When probation and parole officers lacking resources and plausible technique are made responsible for dispersed caseloads of individuals who proved themselves motivated offenders in the past, who are located where crime and vulnerable victims abound, and who are effectively anonymous because they are without formal or informal supervision for weeks on end, the agents are inclined to let nature take its course — to wait for police to arrest those offenders under their supervision who, unsupervised, commit new crimes (Smith and Dickey 1998: 20).
Fortress probation and passivity in case management serve to undermine the rigorous enforcement of the conditions of probation. Months may go by from the time a violation is detected to the point at which corrective action, if any, is taken. As an example, drug testing is in some jurisdictions scheduled in advance, yet test results are provided sometimes a week or more after the tests are administered. The testing is done infrequently and, as a result, is ineffective either as a deterrent or as a tool to prevent drug use. It is troubling and ironic that these practices have become the great “enablers” for continued noncompliant and criminal behavior on the part of offenders presumably accountable to probation.
Too many probation agencies do not encourage field-based activities providing meaningful face-to-face supervision to offenders in the neighborhoods where they carry on their lives. Probation has become disconnected from such areas, a situation that has resulted in the removal of the “community” from the business of community supervision. Given this situation, many probation agencies typically fail to draw on the leverage and resources the community may provide in supervising and monitoring offenders. The operation of probation in too many jurisdictions today is far removed from community concerns and needs (Clear and Corbett 1999).
Even more, most probation practitioners have yet to develop in any systematic fashion real interagency cooperation and partnerships with law enforcement, treatment and service providers, community organizations, schools, victims’ groups, and churches to better serve communities. Where partnerships with others outside probation have been forged, they have shown great promise and some real success, as will be shown below. Nonetheless, the failure to pursue such collaborations is far more common and represents a significant shortcoming relative to the effectiveness and credibility of probation operations.
The Decline in Funding
It is evident that the practice of probation has been affected by the criminal justice system’s shift toward punitive crime control policies during the past several decades. This shift has triggered a growing and unrelenting reliance on incarceration in response to crime, accompanied by ever-greater expenditures for prison expansion. The marked increase in the nation’s prison population and the fiscal support necessary to sustain this growth has taken place at the expense of probation, and community corrections more generally. If the track record of probation is characterized by serious deficiencies, and it is, one reason for this is that the field of probation has long been weakly funded, and at times, woefully understaffed.
The past 20 years has witnessed a marked and steady decline of probation funding when compared to prison spending. The historically unprecedented growth in the prison population is well known, but is worth repeating. In 1970, state and federal prisons housed fewer than 200,000 prisoners. In 1990, this figure had grown to 743,382. By 1998, the total number of inmates in state and federal prisons exceeded 1.2 million. Between 1990-1998, the nation’s prison population grew by 65 percent (Beck and Mumola 1999; Bonczar and Glaze 1999). Most, if not all, states have engaged in massive prison construction programs to deal with the increased number of offenders sentenced to a term of confinement. Nationwide, for fiscal year 1996, the states, the District of Columbia and the Federal Bureau of Prisons spent just under 25 billion dollars for prisons (Stephan 1999). Spending on prisons now constitutes about a quarter of total state and local criminal justice spending (including the police, courts and corrections), and about two thirds of the total corrections budget.
The opposite holds true for probation relative to population growth and funding. The number of offenders on probation has shown a steady and significant growth, yet budgetary support and funding has remained static, if not declined. At the start of the decade, a total of 2,670,234 adult offenders were under the supervision of probation. By 1998 this figure had increased (as stated earlier) to 3,417,613. Between 1990-1998 the number of those on probation jumped by 28 percent. Even more telling, probation caseloads have grown from what many argued in the mid-1970s was an ideal offender/probation officer ratio of 30:1, to an average caseload of 175 offenders per probation officer in 1997 (Camp and Camp 1998: 173). As Petersilia points out, this figure actually overestimates the number of probation officers performing supervision, thus increasing the average caseload even more. Using figures drawn from regular supervision caseloads in 1994, she notes that line probation officers were expected to supervise an average of 245 probationers (Petersilia 1997: 167).
Community corrections, which includes probation and parole, has over two-thirds of the persons in criminal custody. Despite the fact that the vast majority of offenders under some form of correctional supervision are in the community, it receives only one-third of the total corrections dollar, about half of what prisons receive to serve less than half the probation population. Significantly, since 1977 spending for probation in proportion to prison spending has shown a steady decline. The disparity between prison and probation budgets becomes most visible by comparing per-offender amounts spent on each. Most states spend between $20,000 and $50,000 a year for each person in their prison system. Petersilia notes, however, that some of these same jurisdictions spend barely “$200 per year per probationer for supervision.” There is no jurisdiction that invests in probation at a level of funding even remotely comparable to that available to house felons in state prisons (Camp and Camp 1998: 184). At a national level, even though probation alone is responsible for the supervision of nearly six out of ten offenders under some form of correctional supervision, it receives less than ten percent of state and local government funding earmarked for corrections (Petersilia 1997: 150).
There is little doubt that insufficient funding and inadequate staffing have exerted an influence over the general malaise impacting on probation. In some jurisdictions, very high average caseloads, sometimes ranging from 100 to 500 per probation officer, have rendered supervision ineffectual (Nessman 1997). This has contributed in part to the growing problem of offender failure rates on supervision and the even more vexing issue of probationer recidivism. Both are unacceptably high and are evidence of poor to dismal probationer performance while under supervision; both are symptomatic of and speak to the need to redirect the practice of probation.
Probation Reform: Meeting the Public’s Expectations
As the preceding discussion illustrates, probation is demonstrably in crisis. It is critical that probation executives acknowledge the maladies that affect and cut deeply into the consciousness of their profession. Though this malaise has been sparked by the larger legitimacy crisis afflicting the system of criminal justice, even more, it has been exacerbated over time by the ineffectual performance of probation. It is apparent that the traditional focus of probation officers in supervising only those offenders on their caseloads and the generalized tolerance for passivity in case management are inadequate to achieving public safety goals or reducing recidivism.
The present crisis affecting probation has historical and cultural roots. Just as it took several decades for this situation to develop, it will take a concerted, long-term effort to turn it around and reinvent the practice of probation. It is vital that those in decision-making positions, as well as those line officers whose work takes them into the community, thoughtfully and energetically assume the responsibility for retooling their strategies and methods of operation. To do this successfully will require an understanding of what the citizenry expects and then acting on what matters to them. It will mean reinvesting in and restoring the community to a central role in the business of probation supervision. Fortunately, there is a good deal that is known about what the public expects and what it will take to be responsive to the public’s expectations.
The steady devaluation of probation during the past few decades runs alongside public opinion surveys that show a decline in public confidence in and little knowledge about its operations. Public opinion polls suggest that Americans have rather low confidence in and understanding of probation. These surveys also show that of the main components of the criminal justice system, including the police, courts, prisons and probation, there is an overwhelming dissatisfaction with everyone but the police. A national survey conducted by Sam Houston State University in 1996 on criminal justice issues revealed that roughly 60 percent of those surveyed reacted favorably to the performance of the police. In contrast, only 25 percent of the respondents expressed a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in probation. Perhaps even more telling, of those surveyed, 22 percent responded that they “did not know” or “refused” to answer the question about their level of confidence in probation. In that same poll, in addition to the high confidence level enjoyed by the local police, only one percent of the respondents indicated that they “did not know” or who refused to answer the question regarding their confidence in the police (Longmire and Sims 1996).
Two years later Sam Houston State University conducted a more comprehensive poll, this time focusing on Texas only. In this survey, 83 percent of the respondents indicated that they had a “great deal” or “some” confidence in local police. In terms of probation, only 46 percent of the respondents expressed “a great deal” or “some” confidence. Of these respondents, only two percent “did not know” or refused to answer the question about the level of confidence they had in police, while 17 percent were unable or refused to answer this question about probation (Longmire and Hignite 1998). This lack of knowledge reinforces the view shared by many that probation is not visible in the community and is truly the “secret service” of the criminal justice system. Even more, if probation executives fail to recognize this rather sizeable group of respondents as an important constituency to reach, they may develop polices and programs that are not responsive to community expectations and needs (Longmire 1998).
The confidence levels expressed in these opinion polls are mirrored in the results of research conducted recently in Vermont. Corrections officials there pursued a market research approach to ask the public what they thought of the job the correctional system was doing and what it was that they expected and wanted from this critical area of public policy. Focus groups were conducted made up of randomly selected citizens in sessions that were videotaped and subsequently analyzed (Perry and Gorczyk 1997).
The answer revealed by the research was that the public believed the job corrections officials were doing was terrible. In fact, they felt their job performance was worse than what corrections officials thought they thought! Only 30 percent of Vermont citizens believed that probation/parole was doing a good or excellent job. The firm that did these surveys — Doble Research Associates — found similar to even lower numbers in other states, including New Hampshire in 1998 (40%), Oregon in 1995 (18%), and Pennsylvania in 1993 (18%). More generally, the Vermont citizens who participated in the focus groups did not think much of the entire criminal justice system. They liked the police best, judges next, then prisons, and last, probation and parole. Seventy-five percent of Vermont citizens, and similar percentages in other states studied, thought the system of justice required a fundamental overhaul (Boyle, 1999). Clearly, the public does not trust the justice system or its players.
The results of the research in Vermont showed even more. Despite recent trends to the contrary, the public, including victims, believe that crime is increasing, especially drug crime and violent crime. They think the system is letting violent felons out early, instead of serving their sentence, to make room for drug offenders. They do not believe that treatment occurs, but they do believe that cases are plea-bargained just to get the cases processed. The respondents know that probation/parole caseloads are overwhelming, and they think that the prisons are crowded with individuals who do not need to be there. They think prisons and jails make people worse. They do not believe that probation and parole make them better. They think sentences for most crimes are a joke. They do not believe the justice system provides either treatment or education, in prison or out. They think the victim is ignored and the community is shut out. They think, in short, that the criminal justice system is a secret society that covers up its mistakes and does not let anyone see behind the closed doors of chambers, offices, prisons, and treatment rooms.
What Does the Public Want from the Justice System?
The Vermont researchers pursued citizens’ views not just in relation to their dissatisfaction with the justice system, but even more, relative to their expectations of what the justice system should seek to achieve. The researchers asked the public what did they want in terms of outcomes? The question was not posed as how long should the sentence be for the most heinous crime imaginable, but rather, what the citizens wanted from corrections, from justice and from offenders. First, the citizens told the researchers that they wanted just five simple things from the correctional system.
- Safety from violent predators;
- Accountability for the offense;
- Repair of the damage done;
- Education and treatment of the offender; and
- Involvement in making decisions.
By implication, these are the very things or outcomes that the citizens felt the system was not accomplishing. In sharp contrast to current sentencing practices, the public believes prisons should be reserved only for violent, dangerous felons, especially sex offenders, and major drug dealers. Nobody else should be put in prison, especially not non-violent youth and substance abusers. The public knows that prisons make offenders worse. They know that prisons cost too much to use for anyone other than those who are so dangerous nothing else will keep the communities they live in safe. But once such offenders are behind bars, the public expects them to remain confined.
The public believes that the vast majority of criminals are not being held accountable by the system. They know the jails are full, and they do not think jail is the right answer for these offenders. The public thinks these offenders need to be held accountable for their crimes, yet they do not think probation holds anyone accountable. The public believes probation is less than a slap on the wrist, and they think parole is a means of letting them out early, to save money, because the prisons are so crowded.
The public also wants the damage repaired. The public wants what was broken, fixed; what was stolen, returned; what was destroyed, replaced. They think the correctional system spends all of its time thinking about the offender, when it should be thinking about the victim and the community.
The public also wants the offender, especially if he or she is young, to receive an education and to be placed in effective treatment, particularly for substance abuse. The public does not expect it to work every time, but they expect correctional officials to try. They do not think probation does much in this regard. The numbers, in fact, are lower for probation than for the correctional system overall.
Finally, the public is tired of being kept out of the justice process. The citizens want in, and not just on the edges. They think they can make the decisions about what to do with offenders, better than those who work in the correctional system.
What Does the Public Want from Offenders?
Beyond what they want and expect from the correctional system, what does the public expect from offenders? They desire the following outcomes. Offenders when they leave the system should:
- Fully accept responsibility for their behavior;
- Understand the harm their actions caused;
- Acknowledge doing something wrong;
- Offer an apology;
- Repair the harm; and
- Make restitution for the harm.
If the public sees these outcomes achieved in practice, they do not need punishment. Punishment is for those offenders who refuse to accept responsibility, who deny wrongdoing, who insist on blaming others, who do not make restitution, and who do not understand or acknowledge the impact of their behavior on others.
It is evident, however, to the citizenry that the correctional system does not give them any of these outcomes, particularly for the crimes they care about, the crimes that affect the quality of their own lives, in their own neighborhoods. Clearly, the citizens are concerned about serious, violent predators and the offenses they commit, but only to the extent of being appreciative that such crime is not found in their neighborhood. What they want those in the system to do is to take meaningful steps to address the crimes they feel are in their neighborhoods, and to closely monitor the individuals that are leaving the correctional system and returning there.
It is obvious that correctional officials, including those working in probation, have some explaining to do. The public still thinks that crime is up, especially in their neighborhoods. They still think criminals are let out too early. The public thinks this happens to save money and they believe that such a practice is a bad idea. On the other hand, the public believes that offenders can and should be reintegrated, carefully and slowly, under intense supervision, with treatment and educational services designed to give them the skills and knowledge to succeed in the open community. They like the idea of citizen involvement on local boards that handle non-violent criminals. The citizens are willing to expand the use of such boards to more serious crimes, if they are able to get assistance from professional corrections staff. They very much like the idea of citizen review of criminal justice decisions.
The critical, if not trenchant, findings revealed by the surveys cited above contribute to what Doble (1999) calls “the seeming paradox of public opinion.” On the one hand, the public apparently wants more punishment. On the other hand, the citizenry does not want non-violent offenders in prison, and they favor, sometimes strongly, the use of alternatives to incarceration. It is evident that their sentiments carry more nuance than what is typically presented in the evening news or all too often in political debate.
Victims: What Do They Want?
Recall that the National Crime Victimization Survey cited earlier indicated that 31 million violent and property victimizations were experienced in 1998. Property crimes far exceeded violent crimes. In fact, criminal victimizations included about 22.9 million property crimes, while there were 8.1 million violent crimes (Rennison, 1999). The same Bureau of Justice Statistics report also observed that violent crime rates declined seven percent, and property crime rates fell 12 percent from 1997 to 1998, the latter representing the lowest rates recorded since the inception of the survey in 1973 (Rennison 1999). Between 1993-1998 violent victimizations and property crimes decreased in nearly every available demographic category that was considered.
It is comforting, especially for those working in the criminal justice system, to take credit for the drop in crime rates. As was stated at the start of the monograph, the recent reduction in criminal victimizations represents a welcome reversal in long-term crime trends. Nonetheless, this trend must be balanced against other more sobering findings. A survey of nine northeastern states conducted in 1998 by the Council on State Governments asked how many respondents had been victims of a crime. Approximately 80 percent reported some type of victimization. Forty-four percent had been the victim of a violent crime. Of these, 20 percent had been victimized within the previous four years (Boyle 1999).
For some time, victims have been viewed as a separate component of the market, with special needs for attention and services. What the survey by the Council on State Government shows is that victims are not nearly as distinct a sub-group of the population, as is commonly assumed. Of even greater importance, from the victim’s point of view, crime is a cumulative event, not an aggregate rate reported in a national survey. The crime that has not been responded to, as well as the crime that has been plea bargained down to a less serious charge (if not dismissed altogether), is a crime that the victim carries inside day to day. That crime, and the response of the justice system to that crime, stays forever.
Just like the public, victims of crime express a desire for outcomes that create something of value. Such outcomes include a desire for safety, knowledge, restitution, services, meaning and involvement. These outcomes, not surprisingly, overlap with the expectations of the public. Each is explained briefly below.
In terms of safety, those who are victimized want to be assured that the perpetrator of their crime will not hurt them again. They want to know that other offenders as well will not hurt them again. They want to be protected from harassment or intimidation by the offender.
In terms of knowledge, they want to know where the offender is in the judicial system, and afterwards. They want to know what happened, and what the system is doing about it. They want to know if the system is working, and what they can do to protect themselves. They want to be notified of the offender’s processing. They believe they should not have to work or make special efforts on their own to find out.
In terms of restitution, they want the damage paid for, with interest. They want what was taken, returned; what was broken repaired; what was destroyed, replaced. They want these things quickly, up front and they want to be first in line. The system and its needs should come after, not before, those of the victim.
In terms of services, they want, above all, respect from the criminal justice system and the service providers. They want and need to be in charge of determining what these services are. They may want counseling, contact with other victims, confrontation with the offender, or anything else, but they want first and foremost, to be the one to decide what they need. They want prompt, responsive service. They want the court cases to proceed quickly. They want to get it OVER with.
In terms of meaning, they want some meaning to be derived from the crime and its aftermath. They want some good to come of it, and some wider effect than on just them or the offender. They want some hope. They want the system to change, to treat the next victim better, more respectfully, more carefully. They want what they have suffered to matter — to the courts, to corrections, and to the offender. They want their suffering to make a difference.
In terms of involvement, most victims want to be involved with the criminal justice process, but some do not. They want to know what is going on, but even more they want to be consulted in decisions. They also want to be involved with the planning for offenders, and they want to be heard at sentencing. Being victimized by crime results in a feeling of powerlessness, incompetence and a loss of control. It is thus not surprising that victims want to have their power and control over their lives restored, and to feel competent again. They want the courts to listen to them, and they want to tell their stories. Many want the opportunity to tell the offender about the harm their offense has caused. Most of all, they want to be asked, and they want to be treated with dignity and respect.
What Does the Public Want from Justice?
The public (including victims, voters and taxpayers) wants the truth above all else. They do not mean “truth-in-sentencing,” as it has been variously portrayed. They mean, simply, that they expect the system to do what is says it is doing. They want to know that a sentence is a sentence, and that those on whom it is imposed will abide by its requirements. The public also wants to know who is in their neighborhood. They want the justice system to tell them if someone is dangerous, and to be informed when the reverse is true. They want to know as well what the offender really did, not what expedience and the requisites of due process allowed the ultimate charge to be.
The public expects to derive some sense of meaning from the processes of justice. They want what happens in the justice process to bear some relationship to reality. They want the sentence to fit the crime, the offender and the circumstances. Probation, for example, should in its everyday performance show some relationship to common sense. If an offender has a drug problem, then the public expects that offender to participate in drug treatment. If the offender needs a job, then they expect him or her to be employed or obtain the skills necessary to become employed.
The public likewise wants some good to come of justice. They do not want the process of justice to be a dead loss. They want to feel that justice creates value for the offender, for the victim and for the community. They want to believe that those working within the justice system know what they are doing, and that what they do somehow adds value to their lives.
Finally, they want safety. Public safety is the bottom line. They view controlling violent and dangerous offenders as the justice system’s ultimate responsibility. They are willing to pay for that. What they will not tolerate is trading their safety for the sake of reducing the costs of running the system. They are willing to help. They want to be partners in the process, if only the system of justice will let them in.
Given the expectations of the citizenry, and victims, who is the customer of the justice system and probation? If the strategies and practices of probation are to meet these expectations, and they must, they will need to be based on a definition of the customer that is far more expansive than what the field has focused on traditionally. It is a redefinition, in fact, that will for many in the field create some cognitive dissonance. Most practitioners in probation have spent the past 30 years or so taking for granted that the customer of corrections was the offender. In fact, many practitioners in the field still refer to offenders as “clients” assuming they are the primary if not exclusive recipients of correctional services. Within the framework provided below, the customer is the community, inclusive, however, of both victims and offenders. Of equal if not greater note, the product is not services to the offender, but public safety.