States Can Shorten Probation and Protect Public Safety

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The Pew Charitable Trusts on 12/03/2020

Wide variations in policies and term lengths across states point to opportunities for reform

More than 3.5 million, or 1 in 72, adults were on probation in the United States at the end of 2018—the most recent year for which U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) data is available—more than triple the number in 1980.1 Nationwide, on any given day, more people are on probation than in prisons and jails and on parole combined.

At its best, probation—court-ordered correctional supervision in the community—gives people the opportunity to remain with their families, maintain employment, and access services that can reduce their likelihood of reoffending while serving their sentences. But, as previous research by The Pew Charitable Trusts has shown, the growth and size of this population have overloaded local and state agencies and stretched their resources thin, weakening their ability to provide the best return on taxpayers’ public safety investments, support rehabilitation, and ensure a measure of accountability.2 One key factor driving the size of the probation population is how long individuals remain on supervision.

A growing list of high-quality studies have shown that long probation sentences are not associated with lower rates of recidivism and are more likely than shorter ones to lead to technical violations—noncompliance with one or more supervision rules, such as missing appointments or testing positive for drug use. Recent research from the Council of State Governments has found that such violations contribute significantly to state incarceration rates and correctional costs: More than 1 in 10 state prison admissions are the result of technical violations of probation rather than convictions for a new crime.