The bulk of the correctional population consists of people on parole and probation supervision.
There are many who believe that a disproportionate number of people on community supervision are revoked for technical violations (sent to prison, jail or have enhanced supervision requirements while remaining in the community).
Technical violations can range from absconding from supervision (escape) to missed appointments to continued drug and alcohol use to threatening behavior or disrupting the peace of a community.
Why Do We Revoke?
Why do we revoke offenders on community supervision? Are more revoked for new crimes, or technical violations, or both?
No one can answer these questions with perfect clarity (see data below). Answers from advocates range from draconian correctional policies to race or class prejudice.
Just note that there are endless parole and probation agents (via social media) who believe that the majority of offenders with technical violations receive no consequences beyond verbal warnings. In their minds, bad behavior gets a free pass.
We don’t know with precision how many are revoked for new crimes or technical violations; the two are often intertwined.
We know how many “successfully” complete supervision (50 percent probation-56 percent parole) per Department of Justice reports, Successful Completions. But it’s my experience that many “successful” completions have a multitude of technical violations or new crimes or unpaid fines, restitution or child support.
Criminal Justice Reform
We can’t violate every person on parole and probation who screws up or commits minor crimes. If we did, we would shut down the judiciary and the rest of the justice system in six months. We have to let many slide. We have to focus on the most serious cases. Because of fiscal realities, we don’t have a choice.
Criminal justice reformers believe that we revoke too many. Governors insist that correctional budgets burden state revenues. Advocates see it as a matter of justice not to revoke.
There are endless commentators who believe that community supervision is impossibly difficult due to high caseloads (150-1 is not unusual). There are few resources for rehabilitation.
I Could Violate Most
But there are those who suggest that offenders on community supervision routinely violate the conditions of their supervision. Parole and probation agents clearly state that the many under supervision have scores of technical violations; twenty to forty and more are not uncommon.
Some suggest that they could “violate” most of their caseload on any given day. I’ve been told that many offenders have fines, restitution and child support requirements that are not met.
Agents tell me that completely compliant offenders are so rare that when they get one, they are suspicious.
Is It Really A Technical Violation?
When one comes to grips with the fact that the overwhelming majority of defendants are in the system as a result of a plea bargain, it’s obvious that we offer massive breaks. That’s the only way the courts can process an overwhelming number of cases.
It’s the same for technical violations. A defendant can be charged with a new violent crime but violated for technical violations because it’s easier (twenty percent per data below). Lots of new criminal charges are dismissed because of witness and additional problems. It can be easier to revoke a defendant for absconding/escape than to proceed with a new criminal case.
What do we do with people who escape? What do we do with offenders who refuse mandated drug or mental health treatment and choose a short period of incarceration rather than enhanced community restrictions? What do we do when community members vigorously complain that he’s a nuisance or a danger to the neighborhood?
The data below provides some guidance as to numbers.
National Conference of State Legislators (direct quotes)
Offenders sent to prison for probation and parole violations contribute substantially to state prison populations. Thirty-five percent of all state prison admissions in 2006 were offenders returned to incarceration as a result of parole violations, not for new convictions, according to a Department of Justice report, Probation and Parole Violations: State Responses.
US Sentencing Commission (direct quotes)
Of the cases for which the basis for the revocation could be determined, 63.3 percent were for new crimes and 36.7 percent were for technical violations. However, the Commission could not determine the basis for the revocation in a substantial portion of the revocations studied—38.7 percent —because presentence investigation reports are not uniform in reporting whether a revocation has occurred, and they frequently do not provide details on the nature of the revocation.
Because the reason is unknown for so many revocations, a more accurate reading of the data is that at least 38.9 percent of the revocations were for new crimes, but that figure could be as high as 77.5 percent if all the revocations for unknown reasons were for new crimes. Similarly, at least 22.5 percent of all revocations resulted from a technical violation, but that figure could be as high as 61.1 percent if all revocations for unknown reasons were for technical reasons, US Sentencing Commission.
Federal Probation (direct quotes)
A study sought to determine if there were any factors contributing to technical revocations in the jurisdiction not previously considered by either local or state officials, or that have not been thoroughly reviewed in the scholarly literature. The short answer to this question is yes.
Twenty percent of felony offenders officially reported as revoked for technical violations of probation had actually been arrested for a new offense (emphasis added) but had to be reported as technical revocations because of state reporting regulations.
Offenders who have been arrested but whose charges have not been officially filed cannot be counted as new offense revocations, and rightly so. Until guilt for the new offense arrest has been established, the offender is innocent in the eyes of the law.
Moreover, 20 percent of offenders facing revocation for technical violations of probation actually refused treatment or other alternatives to incarceration and opted for imprisonment.
Absconders accounted for 53 percent of those revoked for technical violations, and technical violations can mount quickly, Federal Probation
Pew (quotes–rearranged for brevity)
A study of individuals released from prison in 2004 in 41 states showed that the proportions sent back for a new crime and for a technical violation of supervision were nearly identical.
Some data also suggest that people on probation and parole contribute disproportionately to arrests. In 2009, 18 percent of felony defendants in the 75 largest urban counties were on supervision at the time of their arrest. How many arrests are for new crimes versus rule violations is unknown.
Nearly a third of the roughly 2.3 million people who exit probation or parole annually fail to successfully complete their supervision for a wide range of reasons, such as committing new crimes, violating the rules, and absconding. Each year almost 350,000 of those individuals return to jail or prison, often because of rule violations rather than new crimes.
About one-fifth of felony defendants were on supervision when they were arrested. Although probationers and parolees make up a minority of arrests, they are disproportionately represented among arrestees compared with the general population….
About half of people who exit parole or probation complete their supervision terms successfully, Pew.
Hundreds Of Thousands Not Paying Fines, Court Costs, Restitution, and Child Support (quotes edited for brevity)
The final version of a bill restricting Florida ex-felons’ newly won voting rights was crafted in the final days of the legislative session, the Miami Herald reports.
The bill, now awaiting Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature, requires felons to pay off all fines, fees and restitution before registering to vote, but allows felons to petition a judge to waive those fees or fines, or convert them to community service hours. Unlike most states, it does not allow felons to vote while they pay down their obligations each month.
The chief architect of a constitutional amendment approved by 65 percent of Florida voters last fall estimated that of the 1.4 million felons in Florida who were eligible to vote, hundreds of thousands of them would be blocked from voting if DeSantis signed the bill.
When I was with the Maryland Department of Public Safety as the Director of Public Information, it was obvious that parole and probation agents were revoking troublesome offenders rather than trying to stabilize them in the community. With extremely high supervision ratios, very limited time or contacts with the offender, and with few resources for rehabilitation, the result was inevitable. They were trying to get rid of problem offenders.
States throughout the country understand that their correctional budgets are having an impact on state resources and initiated an amazing array of initiatives to slow down the fiscal implications of parole and probation revocations, Pew.
But after more than twenty years of almost continuous crime declines in the United States, we have mixed results since 2015 as to the growth in violent crime. Violence in several cities is exploding, US Crime Rates.
We do know that the vast majority of offenders are rearrested after prison (including community supervision violations) and most (55 percent) are returned to incarceration, Offender Recidivism.
No one knows the extent of revocations for technical violations with precision, and we probably revoked too many in the past, but criminal justice reform is a delicate balance between public safety, fiscal concerns, and social realities. There are no easy answers. States do not have unlimited budgets. We simply do not have the resources to revoke all who violate multiple times.
As a public affairs director, I personally investigated cases where someone on parole and probation supervision murdered or raped or was involved in child and other sex offenses. High numbers of technical violations were a routine finding.
How do you explain to a mother of a murdered child that the accused had forty technical violations yet we didn’t remove him from society?
How do we justify the murder of a police officer by someone on parole with over seventy technical violations? When I handled this case, I told the truth as to his behavior. The public was understandably outraged.
This illustrates the true dilemma of parole and probation policy and practices.
Against Enforcing Technical Violations: “By one estimate, 75% of those released from incarceration will return to prison within three years. A big reason for that is that these kinds of technical violations make it seemingly impossible to adhere to parole terms. According to the American Bar Association, people with convictions face 44,000 barriers to re-entry. You read that right,” NY Daily News.
Pro Enforcing Technical Violations: “When parolees aren’t charged with breaking the law, they don’t go back to prison, and SB91’s numbers on repeat offenders look really good. But they aren’t. Alaskans are hurting today because criminals have been given a free pass,” KTVA.
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