Adult Probation

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.


– 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.

Community-Connected Probation

Right on Crime | June 22, 2012
New York City is attempting to create a more effective probation process and to move probationers through the system more expediently. By using “Neighborhood Opportunity Network” offices, or NeONs,…

Probation Downsizes Jail Populations Across Texas

Right on Crime | February 15, 2012
Counties across Texas are beginning to take advantage of probation-type programs to ensure that limited county jail space is most effectively used. At the same time, the counties can…

The HOPE Court Model is Spreading

Right on Crime | December 15, 2011
Right on Crime has previously discussed Fort Worth’s adoption of the HOPE Court model. HOPE is a Hawaii program centered on immediate—and tough—sanctions for probation violations, rather than far-off…

County in Texas Debuts Additional Diversion Program

Right on Crime | December 15, 2011
Tarrant County, Texas (where Fort Worth is located) has developed a new program for young adults that is aimed at individuals charged with family violence involving non-intimate relatives. The…

More Reform Efforts in Missouri

Right on Crime | September 27, 2011
Missouri has formed a new task force to improve the effectiveness of their criminal justice system while reducing costs to taxpayers. Specifically, the Missouri Working Group on Sentencing and…

Judge in Fort Worth Follows Hawaii Probation Model

Right on Crime | July 11, 2011
When enacted correctly, probation saves money and reduces crime rates and recidivism. Probation violators, however, frequently face inconsistent penalties and lax enforcement. According to the Fort Worth Star Telegram,…

Reforms Being Considered In North Carolina

Right on Crime | June 21, 2011
There is interesting news out of North Carolina, where important prison and probation reforms are headed to the Governor’s office. The Blue Ridge Times-News has the story... Read more

“Support Your Family Five Days a Week, but Give Us the Other Two…”

Right on Crime | February 2, 2011
According to The Arkansas News, the Arkansas prison system is bursting at the seams. 14,200 prisoners have been stuffed into state prison facilities that can only accomodate 13,000 --…

Florida Governor Rick Scott Moves to be Right On Crime

Right on Crime | January 7, 2011
The transition team of new Florida Governor Rick Scott recently issued a review of the Florida Department of Corrections which can be found here. The Florida Indpendent, however, says…

Is This the Modern Prison?

Right on Crime | November 29, 2010
The last issue of The Atlantic Monthly featured a fascinating article on the use of GPS monitoring as a more effective – and less costly – alternative to prison.…
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