State policymakers spent much of the past two years responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, urgent employment and housing needs, and nationwide calls for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd and other acts of racial violence. Yet, amid these overwhelming challenges, a lower-profile issue—probation and parole reform—found traction with legislatures throughout the country.
Since late 2020, at least 20 states have passed measures to update and improve their community supervision systems. That these efforts moved forward during this historic period reflects the scope of the issue: At the end of 2020, almost 3.9 million Americans—or 1 in 66 adults—were on probation or parole, more than double the number in jails and state and federal prisons (1.8 million).
Several of these state reforms focus on three key objectives: reducing the amount of time people stay on probation, changing rules about revoking probation, and lowering or eliminating fees. Those three goals are also highlighted in The Pew Charitable Trusts’ new brief, “Five Evidence-Based Policies Can Improve Community Supervision,” which assesses the extent to which the 50 states have enacted five important data-informed community supervision policies. And those policies, in turn, are part of a larger set of more than 50, advanced in Pew and Arnold Ventures’ 2020 community supervision framework, that state and local officials can use to shrink and strengthen supervision systems.
Reforms aimed at those three goals may also help resolve other large-scale issues that lawmakers are confronting, such as addressing some racial disparities in the criminal legal system, supporting financial stability for vulnerable families, and even managing COVID-19 transmission rates.
Time on probation
Research shows that long probation sentences do little to deter crime and can be detrimental for people on supervision and their communities, damaging personal relationships and reducing housing and employment opportunities. Lengthy probation terms also consume scarce corrections resources that could be used for substance misuse and mental health treatment as well as other public safety needs. To address these issues, states are changing the length of their probation and parole terms.
A law in Georgia, S.B. 105, streamlined and clarified criteria for early termination of probation and made those changes retroactive, so they can be applied to people already on probation, provided they have no prior convictions or felony probation sentences, as well as to those entering the system. Additionally, individuals on supervision in the state, who meet certain requirements, can now request early termination after serving three years of probation.
In Vermont, legislators addressed probation length with a bill, S. 45, that created a “presumptive discharge” at the point of probation review, midway through a sentence. The change makes early termination the norm, rather than the exception, at that stage.
Revocation of probation for violations
Incarcerating people for violating the terms of their probation or parole, particularly for minor technical breaches such as missing an appointment, strains local jail systems, risks spreading COVID-19, and can cause individuals and their families to lose employment or housing or face other harm.
To change its revocation practices, Virginia enacted HB 2038, which eliminated incarceration for a first technical violation and created a presumption against incarceration for a second, with a limit of 14 days in jail if the court decides incarceration is warranted. Courts can impose up to the original sentence for any subsequent violation.
In New York, S1144 ended the use of incarceration as a response to most technical parole violations, while Utah’s law, H.B. 290, authorized the state sentencing commission to find ways to limit the use of revocations and establish procedures to support the progress of people under supervision.
Fines and fees
Most states allow fines and fees to be levied against people on probation and parole. However, recent research shows that these obligations, which criminal justice officials previously viewed as important accountability measures, not only undermine financial stability for individuals under supervision, but also impede people’s ability to complete required treatment and other programs.
Oregon’s SB 817 eliminated all fees for post-prison supervision, probation, and parole in the state’s juvenile corrections system.
In Texas, a new law, H.B. No. 385, requires courts to consider a person’s ability to pay when assessing fines and fees. Louisiana and Utah also enacted bills, HB248 and H.B. 260, respectively, related to reducing fees for adults on community supervision. The Utah legislation allows the establishment of payment plans that consider an individual’s financial resources—courts can no longer levy certain costs in cases in which people have no ability to pay. And in Louisiana, individuals on unsupervised or “inactive” probation or parole—meaning they do not regularly report to a supervision office—cannot incur fees that exceed $1 per month.
States also enacted a variety of other community supervision reforms. Texas law H.B. 757 removes driver's license suspensions and reinstates professional licenses for people who successfully complete supervision, and a new Oregon law, S.B. 651, creates a due process measure requiring that people on supervision be notified of their right to file an objection and have a hearing when the conditions of their probation are modified.
Throughout the country, states are moving incrementally to protect public safety by prioritizing supervision and services for the highest-risk individuals while improving outcomes and minimizing harms by shrinking probation and parole caseloads.
Jake Horowitz is the director and Connie Utada is a manager with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project.
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