Building Trust and Legitimacy Within Community Corrections

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National Institute of Justice on December 2016 by Wendy Still, Barbara Broderick and Steven Raphael

Corrections in the United States
Over the past three decades, the U.S. incarceration rate has increased to historic highs, while crime rates have dropped significantly. Today, the U.S. incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world. In addition to the 2.3 million people incarcerated in our nation’s jails and prisons, 4 million individuals are on probation or parole at any given time. The individuals on probation and parole — who represent the community corrections system in America — are the largest part of the correctional system. Yet, this aspect of corrections has been largely absent from the national conversation surrounding incarceration rates and criminal justice reform — this despite the fact that community corrections presents the most obvious alternative to incarceration for many and perhaps the best opportunity for reforming the criminal justice system in ways that will promote public safety, efficiency and fairness.

Similar to the growth of prison populations during the past three decades, the number of individuals on probation in the United States has also grown. While there were 492 people on probation for every 100,000 U.S. residents in 1980, this figure peaked in 2007 at 1,425, and by 2014 had declined slightly to 1,214 (see figure 1). With nearly 4 million people on probation at any given time, this represents the largest correctional population in the nation. Interestingly, long-term trends in crime rates and arrests for serious offenses should have militated toward a smaller probation population. Arrests for serious offenses are at historic lows, especially for the relatively young. Figures 2 and 3 compare the likelihood of being arrested in 1980 and 2012, by age, for violent and property index offenses. While arrests for violent and property offenses are somewhat higher for individuals over 30, we observe pronounced decreases in arrest rates for younger individuals in the highest risk age ranges. However, arrests for drug offenses are up, way up, for all ages (figure 4) as are overall arrests for non-index crimes (figure 5). On net, the aggregate age-arrest profile changes very little as increases in less serious arrests have offset the decrease in arrests for more serious crime (figure 6). With lower crime rates, these higher arrest rates for lesser offenses likely reflect shifts in enforcement. In conjunction with stiffer sentencing and net widening in the application of probation sentences, the proportion of U.S. residents on probation has grown alongside the prison incarceration rate.

Today, many states and the federal government are reevaluating sentencing practices with the goal of using incarceration more sparingly. Some jurisdictions have scaled back their use of prisons through shorter sentences and greater use of alternative sanctions (for example, electronic monitoring, probation, short sentences to county jails). These reforms have been motivated in part by cost and population pressures. California provides perhaps the most salient example of a state being forced by a federal court to reduce its prison population to remedy overcrowded prison conditions. Notably, at least nine other states face capacity problems that would violate the conditions placed on California’s prison system by a federal court, suggesting that other states face the risk of losing partial control of their prison systems through prison overcrowding lawsuits. Beyond such instances, other state reforms have been motivated by concerns regarding the differential impacts of the criminal justice system on minority communities, evidence of diminishing returns to scale in terms of the effectiveness of prison as a crime control tool, and a notable shift in public opinion regarding the proper role and scale of the U.S. criminal justice system.

A New Focus on Community Corrections

To use incarceration more sparingly, many jurisdictions are considering greater use of community corrections, probation diversions in particular, for many individuals who would otherwise have been sentenced to incarceration. A shift from incarceration to community corrections could present numerous opportunities for reform of the criminal justice system as well as significant challenges. This paper will discuss the need for a new model for community corrections that can improve public safety while recognizing that people on probation and parole are members of the communities in which they live and are supervised. A shift away from incarceration will likely increase the average severity of probation caseloads and add considerably to the workload of probation departments across the country absent profound changes to current practice.

We believe that substantial diversion from prison sentences toward community corrections is certainly possible, likely to be more effective in the long run, less socially harmful than current practices, and may even be cheaper. That being said, such a change would require that we deploy community corrections resources with greater strategy and efficiency. This means evaluating how we do business today, investing in practices that are proven to work, and abandoning practices that are ineffective. It also means strategically directing resources for monitoring and enforcement efforts to those individuals who need them the most. A more effective community corrections system also will require a shift in incentives, both for probation departments as well as for those under supervision.

Six general principles form the bedrock of this new model for community corrections:

Treat each individual on community corrections with dignity and respect. Recognize our common human capacity both to make mistakes and to make a change for the better.

Realign incentives in the criminal justice system. Cost considerations at the local level should not systematically favor incarceration over alternative sanctions.

Impose the least restrictive sanctions necessary, and minimize the collateral consequences associated with criminal processing and conviction.

Restore communities, and facilitate their health and safety in a holistic way.

Reduce institutional bias and work to ensure that all individuals receive fair, equal access to the justice system.

Evaluate what we do, invest in more practices that work, and abandon practices that do not.

From these principles follow several concrete policy recommendations that form the foundation of a new model for community corrections. These principles are enumerated and explained below, grouped by the objective to which they are most closely related.

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