The COVID-19 pandemic has placed enormous pressure on the nation’s criminal justice system. Although media attention has focused largely on the challenges inside prisons and jails, community supervision agencies, which oversee millions of Americans on probation and parole, also are wrestling with limited opportunities for people to safely meet face to face.
Three veteran justice system officials recently discussed the impact of COVID-19 on the community supervision system and how their agencies have responded. Each served on an expert advisory council established by The Pew Charitable Trusts and Arnold Ventures that developed a community supervision policy framework released in April.
Mark Spitzer was elected to Indiana’s Grant County Circuit Court in 2006 and now presides over the county’s drug court and veterans’ treatment court. He is a frequent lecturer on issues relating to problem-solving courts—which seek to address the underlying problems contributing to certain offenses through treatment and case management—as well as evidence-based practices in criminal justice.
Erika Preuitt directs the Department of Community Justice’s Adult Services Division in Multnomah County, Oregon, and is the immediate past president of the American Probation and Parole Association.
And Anne Precythe directs the Missouri Department of Corrections with responsibility for adults on probation and parole. Before taking that position in 2017, she served as director of community corrections in North Carolina.
Their responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Spitzer: We limited the number of people in court at any time to 10 and moved much of supervision to virtual visits on Zoom or by telephone, although we continued some in-court checks so that we could lay eyes on people now and then. We continued drug screening at normal intervals for drug court participants, because it is important to continue accountability, but we dialed back testing for our regular probation population. Overall, we wanted to continue to have purposeful interactions with our populations and deliver the message that “yes, this is different, but it doesn’t mean you can avoid your recovery and the structure associated with that.”
Precythe: We took a three-year plan to go virtual with our supervision operation and implemented it in 30 days. When the pandemic hit, we sent 2,000 staff home to work remotely and had to figure out how to do assessment, case planning, and everything else under entirely new conditions. One big challenge was a lack of equipment, like cellphones and laptops. Missouri is also a very rural state, so in some places we’ve had problems with internet connectivity.
Preuitt: We now rely heavily on virtual or telephonic reporting, although we continue with some home visits for clients who are high risk. We also suspended monthly supervision fees for adults on probation and parole to help reduce economic hardships made tougher by the pandemic. More broadly, Multnomah County is no longer arresting people for technical violations of probation because of concerns about jail populations and the spread of the virus. Instead, we are using cite and release for minor offenses and technical violations.
Precythe: Our people like working virtually, and they’ve found that they have better contacts with their clients outside the office. Through FaceTime, they can see the children or the family having dinner or engaged in other activities, which allows them to learn more about clients, their surroundings, and how they’re doing. We have seen drops in recorded violations as well as in revocations and returns to court. We’re keeping an eye out to see if those trends continue, but it’s too soon to know what they mean.
Preuitt: We need to unpack the data before drawing conclusions, but one very promising result is that shifting to virtual and telephonic meetings has been a positive step for clients. People feel that they can report to their probation officers more easily and comfortably, and our officers say that clients are connecting with them more effectively and consistently.
Preuitt: I’m a huge supporter of meeting people where they are rather than remaining trapped in the brick-and-mortar approach. The pandemic has given us a real opportunity to move to a mobile workforce mode. I don’t see going back to the days where a probation officer sits in an office all day seeing people who come in.
Spitzer: The way we’re using technology will have lasting impacts. For example, we’re using it to check in with people we send to inpatient treatment or sober living homes. In the past, we’d do that by email, but we get much better information through video. Limits on the number of people in the courtroom also have us thinking about dividing our problem-solving court populations into smaller groups, perhaps by gender, risk level, or trauma history. Some evidence suggests that can be more effective.
Precythe: We need to look at every aspect of the budget closely, and at performance measures for our programs. If programs are doing what we need them to do and getting the outcomes we seek, then we don’t want to touch them—and I’m very protective of programming. But if a program is not working, we need to take that money and shift it elsewhere.
Spitzer: The biggest portion of our budget is personnel, and if you cut that, you affect supervision. We’ve had an uptick in felony filings recently, driven by substance dependence and domestic violence cases, so the system is already stressed. The greater concern is how long it will take the economy and local revenue to catch up to help us meet these challenges.
Preuitt: Our priorities remain providing services to the highest-risk population—those most likely to recidivate—and investing in evidence-based programs that have been proven to help people change their behavior. I think shrinking our facilities’ footprints is a key cost-saving step. Government has discovered that people can telework, so let’s look at buildings, figure out needs, and discuss how we can co-locate services to reduce expenses.
Spitzer: We need to look at what our data tells us, drill down to the reasons for disparities, and take steps to address them. Indiana’s chief justice, Loretta Rush, has outlined some objectives we’re pursuing, and I led a committee that looked at the pretrial population and is seeking to remedy disparities there. One change is that for people of modest means, including many people of color, we now go back and review those who we expected would get out of jail quickly on bond, but who did not, to make sure that was not because of economic reasons. There is much to learn and to do, including increased training on cultural competency and implicit bias for our staff.
Precythe: In Missouri, we review data to ensure officers are following policies and treating everyone fairly and equitably. When we see things that are out of whack on a caseload, we want to dig further to better understand all of the factors that might be involved. In Missouri, as in the rest of the country, we know that people of color are disproportionately overrepresented in the prison population, and we want to make sure we don’t exacerbate the problem. In all areas of the criminal justice system, beginning with arrest and continuing through re-entry, our profession needs to come together and have a purposeful, actionable, and transparent discussion about racial disparities.
Preuitt: Thanks to grant funding, we’ve been able to develop a racial disparities dashboard for use internally that allows us to collect a lot of data on revocations, sanctions, jail beds, risk assessments, and other indicators and track how we’re doing. When we look at the relative rate index for certain groups and something is off, we have conversations with our officers and managers to try to figure out what’s going on. We also consider racial disparities as we evaluate employee performance. We are deliberate about the message that we all play a part in creating or reducing these disparities and need to hold ourselves accountable and do what we need to do to get better.