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Probation and Parole: History, Goals, and Decision-Making - Recent Trends

percent probationers prison revocations

Increasing rate of revocations. There is some evidence that both the number and rate of revocations have increased and these have had a significant impact on prison and jail populations (Parent et al.). For example, in 1988 more than 60 percent of Oregon's prison admissions were due to probation or parole revocations. Furthermore, two-thirds of the prison admissions in Texas in 1989, and 60 percent of California's prison admissions, were violators (Parent et al.).

Parent and colleagues note that while the increase in probation/parole populations alone might account for the increase in revocations, interviews with practitioners reveal that in some states the rate of revocations has increased as well. Increased rates of revocations have been attributed to many factors including: (1) the shift toward control-oriented practices of community supervision; (2) the law-enforcement background of new probation/parole officers (as opposed to the social work background of the past); (3) an increase in the number of conditions of probation; (4) improvement in the methods of monitoring violations; (5) the more serious offender placed on community supervision caseloads; and (6) an increase in probation and parole caseloads (Parent et al.).

Empirical data on technical violations. While data collected over time is not readily available, the largest follow-up study of felony probationers in the United States revealed that a substantial proportion of probationers fail to successfully complete their sentence (Langan and Cunnif). For example, within a three-year follow-up period, 62 percent of a sample of 79,000 felony probationers had been either arrested for another felony or had violated a condition of probation resulting in a disciplinary hearing (Langan and Cunnif). Thirty percent of those had both been arrested and had a disciplinary hearing, 13 percent had only been arrested, and 19 percent had only a disciplinary hearing. Furthermore, 46 percent of the sample were ultimately incarcerated. Of those probationers who were incarcerated, 35 percent were incarcerated for committing only a technical violation (Langan and Cunnif).

In contrast, however, Clear and colleagues' evaluation of 7,501 felony and misdemeanant probationers terminated from six probation agencies revealed that approximately onequarter of the probationers committed violations, half of which were violations of technical conditions of supervision. Further, they found that most violators misbehaved only once. Therefore, the majority of probationers successfully completed their sentence without incident. In short, their study seemed to refute the assumption that due to early release and diversion from prison, the probation population has become increasingly dangerous.

The recidivism rates for parolees are even higher than the rates of probationers. Beck and Shipley (1989) examined the recidivism rates of 108,580 men and women who were released from jail in eleven states. They found that 62 percent had been rearrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor within three years of release and 41 percent had been returned to prison.

Innovative responses. In response to the observation that increasing numbers of offenders are having parole revoked during community supervision, many jurisdictions are reexamining their revocation procedures (Parent et al.). A major development is the structuring of discretionary decision-making, consistent with the general trend in criminal justice. The goal of the structure is to give officers concrete guidance so that their choices become more certain and uniform without removing all discretion. Structure is incorporated into the decision-making by written policy giving the goals of revocation and specifying which violations are serious enough to result in revocation procedures. Behaviors that warrant alternative sanctions are also identified. Thus, agencies make it clear to officers that violations are a routine part of supervision that can be responded to in a variety of ways.

Some jurisdictions have expanded the range of sanctions available to officers so that officers are not forced to choose between sanctions that are too harsh (a return to prison) and sanctions that are too lenient. Other jurisdictions have developed intermediate sanctions specifically for probation or parole violators. For example, Georgia has developed a correctional boot camp for technical violators of supervision. The violators are required to complete ninety days in the boot camp before returning to the community.

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