I just wrote, “Is Accountability For Criminal Offenders Dead?” addressing a Philadelphia Inquirer article suggesting that Pennsylvania’s probation system is a harsh, overzealous trap. Sharing it caused me to be banned from the “Crime” page on Reddit.

But felony cases are flooding the probation system. Recidivism rates are high. More offenders with extensive criminal histories or with rule violations are on probation because of efforts to minimize prison costs.

While the Inquirer’s article raises a variety of justifiable points, others are suggesting that too many criminal offenders are getting leniency via probation where incarceration would be a more appropriate response. They suggest that the public is put at risk for probation of repeat felons.

A report from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution illustrates the debate using a new report.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (quotes rearranged for brevity)

A new report detailing Atlanta’s recidivist problem blames lenient sentencing by Fulton County judges, echoing a popular talking point by police, Atlanta Constitution-Journal.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained a final draft of the study, which found that 23% of repeat offenders — defined as persons with three or more felony convictions — were sentenced to confinement by Fulton judges.

Those recidivists, the report states, were responsible for 18% of felony cases tried in Fulton courts over that same two-year period.

“The leniency shown to these bad actors by the judicial system results in recidivistic crimes that prey on the public, often resulting in egregious injury or public fear by citizens and the neighborhoods who feel as if they’ve been terrorized,” the report concludes.

The 2017-18 confinement number signals a dramatic decline from 2016, when 37% of repeat offenders were incarcerated.

“There is a reason for the community to be concerned,” said McBurney.

That’s the Fulton judge who boasts the highest rate of confinement sentences for repeat offenders.

“But it gets complicated when one tries to put a label on repeat offenders.”

Most were convicted of nonviolent crimes, the AROC study found. About half of all crimes committed by repeat offenders in Fulton from 2017-18 were drug-related, followed by larcenies — the type of offenses, reform advocates say, better served with treatment and rehabilitation.

In 2017, 15% of repeat offender crimes were for violent offenses (homicide, assault, battery). That dropped to 7% in 2018.

The average time served on a fourth felony conviction is 95 days, according to the AROC report.

What we’re talking about is protecting citizens of Atlanta from those individuals who’ve shown they’re not getting it. A lot of these guys have upward of 15 to 20 felonies.

“Three judges passed sentences on this felon who committed most of his crimes while on probation,” the report states.

My synopsis of the paper’s article is incomplete; several expressed disagreement over the methodology of the study but many seem to believe that probation was being misused for a wide variety of offenders with serious criminal histories.

Is The System Overly Harsh or Overly Lenient?

So we have two widely respected newspapers providing coverage of the same issue; leniency versus harshness of the justice system.

Yes, The Philadelphia Inquirer focused on what happens while on supervision when you “get” probation versus a larger discussion as to “who” gets probation, but one story dovetails into the other.

Criminal justice reformers want as few people as possible incarcerated and probation to be a supportive system with minor consequences.  While there are many aspects of criminal justice reform that I support, we never seem to admit that we are taking greater chances with a more difficult probation caseload.

Who Is On Probation?

Cases Dropped: First and second timers often get diverted or cases are dropped. Most are in the justice system for repeat violations. 16 to 50 percent of federal crimes are declined from prosecution.

34 percent of state felony cases are not convicted. Approximately nine percent involve a deferred adjudication or diversion outcome, per Prosecution Data. Thus, to begin with, there are a lot of people charged with crimes that never get to a formal adjudication.

Who Is On Probation: Felony cases went from 50 percent of the probation population in 2005 to 57 percent in 2015, which means that probation is handling a more challenging workload.

Misdemeanors fell from 49 percent to 41 percent. All categories of violent offenders grew except for domestic violence. The probation population from 2005 to 2015 included more active cases when they were supposed to decline due to diversions, Parole and Probation.

Rearrests: To my knowledge, there is one major and definitive study (based on large numbers of offenders) on state probation recidivism. 

It focused solely on felony probationers. Within 3 years 43% of state felons on probation were rearrested for a felony. Half of the arrests were for a violent crime (murder, rape, robbery, or aggravated assault) or a drug offense, Offender Recidivism.

If the study included misdemeanors, the numbers would be much higher.


Five out of six state prisoners were arrested at least once during the nine years after their release per a BJS study.

Rising Crime

If we have agreed to put fewer people in prison per the data cited by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and to put a larger number of felons on probation per the data above, will it have an impact on violent crime?

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From 2015 to 2018, the total number of violent victimizations increased by 28% per the National Crime Survey of the US Department of Justice, Crime in The US.

Per the National Crime Survey, the seriousness of violent crimes has also increased, Serious Violence.

Correlation does not equal causation, but the reform movement intersects with rising national violent crime. Note that property crime continues to decrease nationally.


There is nothing wrong with a debate as to criminal justice reform. Not all offenders need to go to prison, not all prison sentences need to be long, and most on probation do not need incarceration for minor infractions. But per the Atlanta study, the average time served on a fourth felony conviction is 95 days. That’s not a lot of time served.

But are we being honest with the public as to the increased risk to public safety? If the data above is any indication, more chances with more people may lead to more crime.

If the average violent offender in the US serves less than three years, that means that more are returning to the streets quicker, Time Served.

I don’t have issues with a discussion as to changing the justice system. I just want us to be open and honest with the public as to taking more risks that will impact more people.

In a day and age of #metoo and holding abusers of women and children accountable, reform means less accountability.

If citizens agree to take greater chances with their safety and the welfare of their children and community, that’s fine.

But I suspect that before the study reported by the Journal-Constitution, those in Atlanta didn’t have a clue.

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