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Sentencing: Alternatives - The Effectiveness Of Alternative Sentencing Programs

percent recidivism offenders probationers

Dozens of program evaluations have documented the performance of intermediate sanctions. Researchers were primarily interested in learning how participation in these programs affected offenders' subsequent criminal behavior (that is, its impact on recidivism). A secondary but important issue, however, was whether these alternative sanctions could reduce prison crowding and save justice system costs.

The findings are profound in their importance because they are so consistent, despite differences in the programs, the agencies that implemented them, and the characteristics of offenders who participated (see Petersilia, 1998; Sherman, 1997).

First, and critically important, very few offenders participated in such alternative sentencing programs, and few overall dollars were spent on new program initiatives:

  • • As of 2001, virtually all states and the federal government report having intensive supervision programs, but fewer than 6 percent of the 2.7 million adult probationers and parolees are estimated to be participating in them (although this number is higher than in the past) (Camp and Camp).
  • • All fifty states report using electronic monitoring; yet despite what has often been characterized as "explosive growth," the actual number of probationers and parolees monitored electronically—now at its highest ever—is estimated to be only about 1 percent (Camp and Camp).
  • • Thirty-five states report operating boot camps, but the daily census of all of them combined has never exceeded ten thousand participants (Camp and Camp).
  • • By comparison, there were over 1,200,000 inmates in the state and federal prisons in June 1998, and almost 600,000 inmates in local jails (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999).
  • • At latest count, there were nearly 125 dayreporting centers operating in the United States, but the estimated daily population of all of them combined is less than fifteen thousand (Parent et al.).

From these rough estimates it appears that, at most, 10 percent of all U.S. adult probationers and parolees are participating in alternative sentencing programs—a figure that is probably higher than at any point in the past. And, knowing that felons being granted probation have increasingly serious prior records and substance abuse problems, we can safely say that intermediate sanction has not touched the bulk of those for whom it might be appropriate.

Second, by and large, intermediate sanction program participants did not come from that group of offenders who were prison bound, but rather those who were high-end probationers. In state after state, well-meaning program developers wrote guidelines for prison "diversions," and just as well-meaning judges and prosecutors ignored them, and filled up the programs with high-risk probationers. From the perspective of those who created these programs to save money and prison space, judges "misused" intermediate sanctions. But from the perspective of judges, they had endorsed the concept of a continuum of sanctions, and preferred to use these options to increase supervision and accountability for felony probationers. The "alternatives" experiment was definitely "widening" the net of social control, but given earlier evidence about the lax supervision of serious felons on probation, some instead characterized it as "net repairing."

Third, offenders were watched more closely, but intensive supervision did not decrease subsequent arrests or overall justice system costs. It did, however, increase technical violations. Offenders on ISP, electronic monitoring, boot camps, day fines, and drug testing programs were watched more closely—as evidenced by a greater number of contacts—but the programs did not reduce subsequent (officially recorded) arrests.

For example, the intensive supervised probation/parole national demonstration evaluated by Turner and Petersilia, which involved fourteen counties in nine states (Petersilia and Turner), found:

  • • No difference in arrests at one year (38 percent for ISP, and 36 percent for routine probationers);
  • • More ISP than control offenders had technical violations (70 percent vs. 40 percent), and as a result;
  • • More were returned to prison or jail by the end of one year (27 percent of ISPs, compared with 19 percent of the controls).

Since it is doubtful whether they committed more violations, close surveillance meant that officers uncovered more technical violations. When this happened, many ISP managers believed they needed to take punitive actions—often revocation to prison—to maintain the program's credibility in the eyes of judiciary and the community. Therefore, programs that were started primarily to save money and avoid the costs of prison often ended up costing their counties more in the long run.

ISPs also tend to attract "law and order" types of probation and parole officers who, in turn, generate higher rates of technical violations (Paparozzi). More technical violations lead to more returns to prison. Importantly, research has yet to show evidence that technical violations are precursors to more serious offending (Petersilia and Turner).

These results bring into question a basic premise of intermediate sanctions, that is, that increased surveillance will act as a constraint on the offender, and that the likelihood of detection will act as a deterrent to crime. A recently completed meta-analysis of the impact of intermediate sanctions on recidivism concluded: "On average, there was no difference in percentage recidivism rates between the ISP and control groups. In summary, the unmistakable conclusion is that the new 'get tough' revolution in probation and parole has been an abject failure when it comes to reducing recidivism" (Gendreau, Goggin, and Fulton, p. 6).

The fourth main finding is important and tantalizing, and has been found consistently across all of the evaluations regardless of program design. The finding points to the importance of combining surveillance and treatment program participation. The RAND national evaluation found that offenders who participated in treatment, community service, and employment programs—or prosocial activities—had recidivism rates 10–20 percent below that of those who did not have such additional activities.

Researchers have found similar findings in Massachusetts, Oregon, and Ohio, and a recent meta-analysis of 174 evaluations of intermediate sanctions programs concluded that the combination of surveillance plus treatment is associated with reduced recidivism (Gendreau and Little). Gendreau and Little conclude: "In essence, the supervision of high risk probationers and paroles must be structured, intensive, maintain firm accountability for program participation and connect the offender with prosocial networks and activities." ISPs that employed more treatment reported a 10 percent decrease in recidivism (Gendreau, Goggin, and Fulton). The empirical evidence regarding ISPs is decisive: without a rehabilitation component, reductions in recidivism are exclusive. With a treatment component, significant reductions in recidivism are possible.

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