California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) recently signed a criminal justice measure, AB 1950, that will limit probation terms as part of an effort to reform community supervision.
On the same day, Sept. 30, Newsom vetoed a separate measure, while agreeing with its purpose and approach, that was intended to provide positive incentives to help reduce the number of people on parole and the time spent on supervision. He said that bill largely duplicated work already underway administratively in the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Nationally, nearly 4.4 million people were under community supervision at the end of 2018, more than twice the number in prisons and jails combined. In California, more than 300,000 people—1 in 98 adult residents—were under some form of mandatory supervision at that time. Incarceration for supervision revocations costs state taxpayers at least $2 billion annually. Just among those on felony probation, there were more than 14,500 revocations to prison or jail in 2018, primarily for rule violations and new minor offenses.
The changes in AB 1950 align with what research says works to improve supervision. The law limits misdemeanor probation to one year and felony probation to two years, with certain exceptions. Research shows that multiyear supervision sentences that extend beyond the point of serving rehabilitative or public safety objectives result in bloated probation and parole caseloads.
As a result, supervision officers are forced to spread resources thin. Policies that limit the length of probation and parole terms, on the other hand, encourage a focus on higher-risk individuals and the early months of supervision. A forthcoming Pew report will examine the length of probation terms and evidence that states can shorten terms and protect public safety. Steps such as those in AB 1950 should shrink the number of people on probation and parole while helping to cut costs and protect public safety.
Efforts to reduce the length of supervision terms help focus policies and resources on the early months of a sentence when individuals are most likely to reoffend and have their supervision revoked. As in other states, revocations of probation and parole are a substantial driver of prison admissions.
Nationally, supervision revocations account for 45% of state prison admissions and represent nearly a quarter of the people in prison on any given day, according to a 2019 report by the Council of State Governments. In California, where 1 in 3 prison admissions in 2017 were because of a revocation, this legislation can help bring down the costs of incarcerating those who have violated supervision, while creating little threat to community safety.
California’s approach mirrors the goals and policies outlined in Pew’s recently published policy framework on probation and parole, released in April. Endorsed by national criminal justice organizations, the framework highlights that researchers, probation and parole administrators, and policy experts increasingly agree that most supervision sentences are longer than necessary and that public safety resources are more efficiently used when terms do not exceed 18 to 24 months. The Chief Probation Officers of California backed the Pew findings at the time, noting in a press release that shortening supervision terms would serve to “frontload services to best end the cycle of crime.”
These reforms—both legislative and administrative—build on earlier efforts to adopt evidence-based policies that protect public safety. For example, SB 678, passed in 2009, established ongoing, incentive-based funding for county probation departments based on the shared goals of promoting public safety, reducing the size of the incarcerated population, and cutting correctional costs. In all, the state has estimated savings of over $1 billion from its 2009 reforms and has continued to experience declining crime rates over the past decade.
The state’s changes are consistent with both evidence-based and best practices. Informed by research and the experiences of justice system leaders, these approaches can help safely shrink California’s probation and parole system and reduce revocations to prisons and jails.
Jake Horowitz is a director with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project.