Editor’s note: This article was updated on Feb. 10 to clarify a reference to the potential impact of having one interview subject complete her full sentence.
This article is part of a series that highlights the insights of people who have experienced community supervision.
Originally created as a way to provide a less punitive and more constructive alternative to incarceration, probation has become increasingly focused on punishing people’s setbacks, not promoting their successes. As justice systems struggle to balance monitoring and public safety with treatment and support, populations under supervision remain considerably large. Ironically, this reality has turned probation into a primary driver of incarceration.
From the perspective of people who have been supervised under probation or parole, many of the practices meant to support stability and prevent recidivism often do neither and can actually hinder individual progress.
To find out more about how this emphasis on enforcement has affected people’s paths through probation, The Pew Charitable Trusts spoke with Nicole S. Junior and Kathleen Davis, who spent time on probation in New York and Arizona, respectively. Both are now working to improve the system and help others who have gotten into trouble get their lives back on track. They spoke at length about how probation could be used to tailor supervision programming to people’s needs, but one theme rose to the top: Probation has an incentives problem.
Junior, a former prosecutor in Brooklyn who uses they/them pronouns, had every intention of using their time on probation to rebuild their life. Yet Junior found the system they were forced to navigate more harmful than helpful: “There is no way that you can say that this system is for rehabilitation, [that] this system is for assessing people's ability to be … positive community members … The only thing that is a result of the system … is penalization. There's nothing else … Every aspect of your day, you're in constant fear.”
This constant fear did not help Junior maintain the motivation to successfully complete probation. To the contrary, it almost pushed them to give up entirely: “Even when you do everything that you're told to do, it’s hard … not to be a recidivist because there's nothing set up for you to be successful. Literally, the only reason I'm not a recidivist, and I know this, is because of … privileges … that most people don't have.”
Junior’s education, family support, and prior life experiences have helped them avoid new troubles. Now, as deputy director of the Prison and Justice Writing program at PEN America—a nonprofit organization focused on protecting the freedom of expression—Junior helps others tell stories about their interactions with the criminal justice system.
So, how can supervision strengthen, rather than diminish, the resolve of people who are determined to succeed?
One proven approach is to shift the emphasis of probation from punishing rule violations to incentivizing positive behaviors. Studies have found that supervision systems are more effective when incentives are used significantly more frequently than punishments.
Pew has identified five evidence-based reforms that can help states achieve key community supervision reform goals. The list includes providing earned compliance credits, a highly valued incentive among people on supervision. These credits operate on a simple premise: the more time individuals spend on probation without rule violations, the less time they spend on probation overall. People earn time off their supervision term at a designated rate, reducing their probation period by complying with the rules.
As of January 2022, 18 states had adopted earned compliance credit policies. When implemented effectively, these credits have eased strain on probation departments and correctional budgets while encouraging behavioral change.
Davis, who now works as a case manager at the Arizona Women’s Recovery Center, completed her probation in her home state, which offers 20 days of credit for every 30 days of compliance. Like Junior, she had already decided to change her life before beginning probation. While incarcerated, Davis had heard about Arizona’s earned compliance credits policy and knew that she would be able to capitalize on the policy upon release.
Davis felt that her time on probation was valuable and “gave [her] the accountability [she] needed,” but she viewed it as a form of “training wheels.” Once she got her balance in the community, she no longer benefited from the external pressure of supervision. With compliance credits, Davis was discharged from probation after a year—one year before her term had been slated to end. Had she served the remainder of her original sentence, Arizona would have expended an additional year’s worth of resources to monitor her behavior.
These cases are not unique. After the first year on probation, the likelihood that a person will commit a new crime drops precipitously. Furthermore, evidence suggests that many people who are arrest-free for their first year on probation could have served shorter terms with no increase in recidivism. Nevertheless, although most states operate corrections budgets with limited resources, they continue to bear the costs of lengthy probation terms without a public safety benefit.
Moreover, the longer a person remains on probation, the longer that person remains vulnerable to incarceration for technical violations. “Despite having been a prosecutor for a decade,” Junior recalled, “I still found the probation system to be unwieldy to understand and to handle … If it was that hard for me—mentally, emotionally, psychologically, physically—I don't know how I could do that if I didn't have my background.”
The Council of State Governments found in 2017 that technical probation violations account for more than 1 in 10 new state prison admissions. The longer people stay on probation, the more likely it becomes that they will accrue minor rule violations and possibly be imprisoned as a result.
Supervision systems tend to place an undue emphasis on sanctions over incentives, in part because enforcement can seem more expedient when policymakers are faced with limited resources. But this can inadvertently create a greater strain on probation department budgets and caseloads—without a greater return on public safety. By using policies such as earned compliance credits, probation systems can rein in spending on people who do not pose a significant risk without diminishing public safety and put those resources in areas where they will have the greatest impact.
Hillary Gore is a principal associate and Isabel Shapiro is a senior associate for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project.