Real Experiences With Probation Shed Light on What Works

Interviews offer insights into policies that could improve community supervision

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Real Experiences With Probation Shed Light on What Works
Orange County Deputy Probation Officer Christine Torres talks to a probationer who has broken the terms of his probation in Santa Ana, California
Alamy Stock Photo

This article is part of a series that highlights the insights of people who have experienced community supervision.

State policymakers often must consider difficult issues for which they have no direct knowledge—for example, engagement with their state’s criminal justice system. People who have lived experiences in that system can provide critical insights that help put numbers, data, and proposed reforms in context.

To learn more about the tangible impact of community supervision, The Pew Charitable Trusts interviewed four people about their time on probation—one person from New York, one from Missouri, and two from Arizona. Although the interviewees come from different walks of life, their stories together paint a powerful picture of how supervision systems can more effectively support successful outcomes, cut costs, and promote public safety.

They all experienced two common struggles with probation: an outsized emphasis on sanctions over incentives and a clear shortage of behavioral health supports. These challenges highlight the potential for policy changes outlined in Pew’s “Five Evidence-Based Policies Can Improve Community Supervision.” The report, published in 2022, provides a 50-state statutory analysis that identifies the extent to which states have adopted these key policies to strengthen their probation systems.

Interviewees recounted how their successes weren’t contingent upon strict supervision through excessive monitoring by probation officers (POs), added sanctions, or more time on supervision. Rather, the punitive nature of probation sometimes proved demoralizing and even discouraging. What each person found most helpful were the positive supports and reinforcement mechanisms encountered during their supervision.

Nicole S. Junior, a New Yorker who uses they/them pronouns, was sentenced to 18 months’ probation but was discharged after 11 months for good behavior. Over the span of less than a year, they had been juggled among four probation officers. Formerly a prosecutor in Brooklyn, Junior now serves as  deputy director of PEN America's Prison and Justice Writing program, where they support and amplify the literary art of those with experience in the criminal judicial system.

Junior described their time on probation as excessively punitive and ultimately unhelpful. In one instance, they recalled asking their PO if they could postpone a routine check-in until the following morning because they were nannying a third grader across town, and the child’s mother was late coming home. The officer told Junior that if they did not come in before the end of the day, they would be taken into custody for a technical violation—even though working was a condition of their probation. This was only one of several examples Junior recalled.

“That was a lot of my hardship, trying to figure out how to stay in compliance with my conditions and see my PO,” they reflected. “Even when it went down to once every other week, it was still a hardship to have to walk that fine line.”

Kathleen Davis of Arizona, meanwhile, was discharged early from probation because of her state’s earned compliance credit policy, which allows people to earn time off their terms by complying with the rules. She believes that probation serves a valuable purpose but that the threat of consequences does not generate real change. After spending time on probation during her addiction and recovery, Davis is now more than three years sober and works as a medical case manager for mothers and children undergoing substance use disorder treatment at Arizona Women’s Recovery Center. She attributes her recovery to her faith and her efforts to be of service to others.

"I believe that probation can add to what it takes to change, but ultimately the endurance involved with changing behaviors, with heart changes, with recovery, with moving out of a criminal lifestyle really comes from an internal stance,” Davis said.

In both Junior’s and Davis’ situations, the impact of strict supervision ranged from inconsequential to detrimental. Their stories highlight how heavy reliance on enforcement may not always be appropriate or useful. And their experiences align with research and best practice that show probation systems can rein in costs and encourage positive behavior by providing incentives, such as earned compliance credits, without diminishing public safety. The resources that supervising agencies expend on monitoring conduct can be better spent on individuals who need more support, treatment, accountability, and structure.

Despite how many people on probation need behavioral health treatment, probation systems struggle to meet those needs consistently and effectively.

Dan Hanneken of Missouri struggled with addiction in his teens and consequently spent more than 10 years in prison; he was on probation for nearly five. Now more than 15 years sober, he helps people transition from prison back into their communities through his organization, In2Action. "In recovery circles you'll hear people say, 'Consequences can't keep you clean,' and my response to that is that they may not be able to keep you clean, but they can get you clean.”

Still, many who have substance use disorders are unable to “get clean” or “stay clean” simply because of the fear of incarceration. Many people in prison or on probation are there because of untreated behavioral health needs, Hanneken said.

Probation systems have long recognized that most people on supervision need some type of behavioral health treatment, whether it be for mental health, substance use, or co-occurring disorders. However, supervision systems have struggled to prioritize, develop, and facilitate appropriate treatment plans.

Anthony Newkirk of Arizona spent a total of 10 years either under supervision or incarcerated. He now provides health, employment, and cultural services to veterans, Indigenous, and Black individuals through his organization, Warriors Code. Reflecting on his Native American and African American roots, he explained that everybody has unique needs, and—especially within communities of color—people don’t all heal the same way. “Everybody has some sort of trauma, but when you try to fit everybody into the same narrative, it's not working,” he said.

In their current roles, Newkirk and Hanneken work to fill treatment and support gaps for people on probation in their communities, but not all localities have organizations like theirs. Probation departments can improve outcomes by redirecting resources from excessive supervision for low-risk individuals to creating more robust treatment planning protocols for people with a broader range of behavioral health needs.

Subsequent pieces in this series delve into the details of the interviewees’ stories and highlight how certain policies and, more broadly, Pew’s framework to strengthen community supervision can help probation systems prioritize resources for high-risk individuals, reduce returns to prison, and better protect public safety.

Hillary Gore is a principal associate and Isabel Shapiro is a senior associate for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project.

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