THE ISSUE.When spending taxpayer money on criminal justice, it is counterproductive and wasteful to enact policies that create more criminals, rather than enacting policies that reduce the incidence of crime. Communities do not benefit from locking up low-risk offenders. In prison, the offender is surrounded by hardened criminals and removed from his family and community. Because the offender is unable to work and earn income, he may be unable to pay adequate restitution to the victim of the crime. Moreover, when he is released, he will face a tough transition back to life outside of prison due to regulatory barriers to reentry. If he does not transition effectively, the state may have facilitated the development of a low-risk nonviolent offender into a career criminal. In effect, taxpayers will have spent more money to make their communities less safe.
As Mark Earley and Newt Gingrich have noted, “[j]ust as a student’s success isn’t measured by his entry into high school but by his graduation…celebrating taking criminals off the street with little thought to their imminent return to society is foolhardy.”
THE IMPACT. Probation presents an alternative to incarceration for certain low-risk offenders, and it carries three advantages when implemented appropriately. First, instead of sending low-risk offenders to prison, probation allows a chance to remain in the community, which keeps family structures together, workers available to the workforce, and allows offenders to be rehabilitated.
Secondly, because probation allows offenders to keep jobs and earn income, it increases the likelihood that they will be able to pay proper restitution to victims.
Third, because probation is significantly cheaper than incarceration, it can be a cost-effective form of rehabilitation. In Missouri, for example, incarceration is five times as expensive as probation, and the state has begun notifying judges of the costs of the sentences they administer. Lengthy and expensive sentences are necessary and unavoidable for serious offenders – but not necessarily for low-level, non-violent offenders. For these individuals, probation may be offered, and it may be conditioned on the offender receiving important services, like regular attendance at drug or psychiatric counseling, which can reduce the likelihood of recidivism. Thus, in some cases, society’s public safety goals may be achieved without the costs of incarcerating, facilitating reentry, or tracking down and re-incarcerating offenders who have become career criminals.
Probation can be made particularly efficient through the use of risk assessments, which are inventories containing questions designed to predict whether the individual will recidivate. The risk factors inquired about may include age, criminal record, employment status, history of substance use, and age of first offense. A risk assessment instrument can be administered when an offender begins probation to determine the appropriate level of supervision.
THE CONSERVATIVE SOLUTION.
– Consider probation in lieu of incarceration for low-level, nonviolent offenders.
– Research and utilize evidence-based practices, such as risk assessments, to determine which offenders are low-risk for recidivism and thus better served by conditional probation.
– Enhance the use of problem-solving courts that address underlying issues such as substance abuse and mental illness. These courts can provide specialized oversight and victim-offender mediation that present a low-cost alternative to incarceration.
– Institute performance-based funding for probation departments. Local probation departments that are successful should receive additional funds in order to further develop their methods. Other departments will adopt proven successful methods in order to qualify for enhanced funding.