Despite Reform Efforts, Probation Hasn’t Changed Much Since 2005

DC Court House

Observations 

The probation population from 2005 to 2015 included more active cases when they were supposed to decline due to diversions.

Treatment doesn’t exist beyond 1 percent.

Caseloads grew more challenging with more felonies and more violent offenders.

Author

Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr.

Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University.

Overview

This article is based on longitudinal data from 2005 to 2015 from the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the US Department of Justice documenting statistics on the use of probation in the United States. Please see the response from BJS at the bottom of the article.

Background

Back during my criminological studies, I was told that if I understood probation, I would understand the bulk of the criminal justice system.

Out of the 6,741,000 people under daily correctional supervision in 2015, 3,790,000 are on probation. Probation populations declined from a high of 4,293,000 in 2007. 1,527,000 are in prison. The rest are on parole or in jails. Correctional Populations in the US

Most crimes are not reported to law enforcement and two out of five reported crimes do not result in an arrest. Crime in America-Arrests

A significant number of arrests (twenty to thirty percent) are never prosecuted. Crime in America-Prosecutions

Thus probation is the leading result when an offender has been arrested, prosecuted and received a formal judicial sanction short of prison or jail.

Yes, it is possible to combine a sentence of jail or prison with a term of probation (known as split sentences).

Criminal Justice Reform

It’s tough to summarize thousands of articles on probation since 2005 but the driver of many conversations was an emphasis on fewer active cases with a diversion of cases to the inactive status based on compliance. Diversion could occur via the judiciary or probation department discretion.

In other words, we would get rid of the compliant, low-level offenders so parole and probation agents with overwhelming caseloads could concentrate on the non-compliant, higher-risk offenders. 100-200 offenders to one agent ratios are not unusual.

We were supposed to place more offenders into residential or other treatment because programs were supposed to prevent future crimes.

We were supposed to divert more drug offenders into treatment and off of probation.

There is no evidence of any of this happening.

New Report on Probation (2005-2015)

Males remain consistent at 75 percent of the probation population.

Females (supposedly the fastest growing demographic of the correctional population) increased from 23 percent in 2005 to 25 percent in 2015.

Whites remained at 55 percent.

Blacks remained at 30 percent.

Hispanics remained at 13 percent.

Active cases grew (theoretically they were supposed to decline) from 72 percent to 76 percent (they were 73 percent in 2014).

Inactive cases declined from 9 percent to 4 percent.

Residential or other treatment remained shockingly low at 1 percent.

Drug offenders remain at 25 percent of the population (they were supposed to decline due to judicial or prosecution diversion).

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.

Note that most felony convictions in the US do not result in a sentence to prison. Crime in America-Felony Conviction

Misdemeanors fell from 49 percent to 41 percent.

All categories of violent offenders grew slightly except for domestic violence. Overall violent grew from 18 percent to 20 percent.

DWI/DUI cases remained consistent at 13-14 percent.

Other traffic declined from 5 percent to 2 percent.

Summation

The probation population from 2005 to 2015 included more active cases when they were supposed to decline due to diversions.

Treatment doesn’t exist beyond 1 percent. There may be treatment or programs funded by others, but most probation agencies do not control those funds.

Caseloads grew more challenging with more felonies and slightly more violent offenders.

Thus parole and probation agents (with very high caseload ratios) are handling more difficult cases with almost nonexistent treatment resources that they control.

BJS Data Overview

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics

Response from BJS

Editor’s Note: The response to my article from the Bureau of Justice Statistics is below:

Mr. Sipes is apparently drawing on the BJS report Probation and Parole in the United States, 2015 (https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=5784 ). I urge caution in drawing conclusions not specifically reached in the report, for example, the apparent change between 2005 and 2015 in the percentage of persons on probation for a felony offense. According to the report “More than half of probationers were supervised for a felony offense over the entire 2005 to 2015 period, exceeding those supervised for a misdemeanor (49% or lower).” Before drawing a stronger conclusion about the apparent change in the percentage of probationers who were felons, I recommend taking a closer look at the data to determine whether changes in the ability of probation agencies to provide information on the felony/misdemeanant status of probationers may affect comparisons over time. This can be done by generating a custom table with the Corrections Statistical Analysis Tool (CSAT) – Probation https://bjs.gov/probation/ . By making the selections Jurisdiction=National Statistics (U.S. Total); Years=2005, 2015; Population=Yearend population; and Variable=Type of sentence; I was able to determine that probation agencies in 2005 were nearly twice as likely to be unable to report the felony/misdemeanant status of probationers (901,626 had an unknown type of sentence), as in 2015 (470,937). A change in reporting of this magnitude may be the primary reason for the apparent change in the percent of felony probationers. To alert data users to this point, the tables generated by the CSAT-Probation webtool include the footnote: “The validity of the reported information may be affected by the amount of information that was ‘unknown or not reported’ among jurisdictions that reported data, and by the number of jurisdictions that did not report in a particular year. These variations may affect the validity of comparisons between jurisdictions and comparisons between years for the same jurisdiction.” In this case, I would recommend using the CSAT-Probation tool to generate the felony/misdemeanant statistics by jurisdiction to determine those that had the largest change in reporting over time, and then eliminating those jurisdictions before re-computing the percentage of felons in 2005 and 2015. This work can be done by downloading an Excel file from the CSAT-Probation tool.

I used felony/misdemeanant status as an example, however, I also recommend closer examination of the other conclusions reached in Mr. Sipes’ article.


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  1. […] Per a survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, money for treatment for probation caseloads is almost nonexistent. It was 1 percent in 2005. It was 1 percent in 2015. That’s not to say that some probationers don’t get treatment, but if they do, it comes from external sources, see Crime in America-Probation. […]

  2. […] A similar article on probation is available at Crime in America-Probation. […]