Many states are shortening probation terms and offering probation more often as an alternative to prison.
The reality of prison overcrowding and budget problems is forcing states to look at easing the burden by changing sentencing guidelines for low-level offenses so that probation is an option. The Pew Charitable Trusts, an organization that funds research and analysis, follows and reported on this trend in April.
“I see this as a good thing. Shorter terms and fewer conditions for probation allow people to become more productive citizens,” said Marcus Hodges, president of the National Association of Probation Executives.
Too often, people on probation are saddled with too stringent conditions, which make it more likely that they will violate the terms of their probation and end up back behind bars, Hodges said.
“I’ve got to ask the question, ‘Are we setting them up for failure?’” Hodges asked. “This whole notion of the probation-to-prison pipeline is something that we’ve got to look at.”
South Dakota faced an exploding prison population in 2014, Pew noted. Most of it was fueled by people whose probation had been revoked, said Greg Sattizahn, the state’s court administrator. Since then, South Dakota has worked to update its probation system, most recently enacting a law that allows people convicted of lesser crimes to be discharged from probation after one year for good behavior, Pew reported.
Missouri’s “earned discharged” approach allows probationers to earn time off for complying with conditions of their sentencing, such as drug treatment. In three years, 36,000 probationers and parolees reduced their probation terms by an average of 14 months – with no increase in recidivism, Pew noted.
In Georgia, one in 16 adults is on probation – almost four times the national average. Because of strict violation enforcement, offenders may end up remaining on probation for as long as 20 years, even life in some cases, Pew stated. And often strict probation codes lead to prison time.
Gov. Nathan Deal led Georgia lawmakers who passed a probation reform bill in March to shorten probation sentences and reduce the caseloads of probation officers who are spread thin.
Deal, a Republican, has focused his efforts on revising Georgia’s criminal justice system and is expected to sign the bill into law in July. Deal has introduced a slew of criminal justice reforms, including withholding salary raises for prosecutors in counties until they establish local drug and mental health courts to help struggling Georgians avoid jail time, according to The Christian Science Monitor.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, another Republican, recently signed into law a package of bills to minimize punishments for “technical violations” of probation and allow judges to reduce probation time for good behavior.
Pew also reported:
Since 2012, Alabama and Hawaii have shortened probation terms.
Louisiana, Minnesota and Oklahoma also have bills pending to cut the time offenders spend on probation or parole.
Changing probation laws is currently popular with many lawmakers, from fiscal conservatives, worried about the rising costs of criminal justice, to social justice advocates concerned that too many people are locked up.
The bills typically pass with overwhelmingly bipartisan support. Georgia and Michigan passed theirs by unanimous vote.
“After someone’s demonstrated their ability to lead a productive life, to continue them on probation actually has negative consequences,” asserted Marissa McCall Dodson, the policy director of the Southern Center for Human Rights.