Focusing on the High Risk Parolee

2009–Pew Center for the States
Executive Summary

One out of every 45 adults in the United States is under some form of criminal justice supervision in the community.1 These offenders commit a disproportionate share of the nation’s street crime: recent national statistics indicate that more than half of jail inmates were on probation, parole or pretrial release at the time of their arrest.2

Among these high-rate lawbreakers, a majority of the serious crimes are committed by a small fraction of people, in a small number of crime-ridden neighborhoods, during the first few months of probation or parole.3

This concentration of crime—by person, place, and time—offers extraordinary opportunities for policy makers to improve public safety and save millions in corrections budgets. At a time when states are facing historic budget deficits, state leaders can prevent a large share of the nation’s criminal activity and cut corrections costs by helping probation and parole agencies focus their efforts on higherrisk  offenders, in higher-risk neighborhoods, at higher-risk times through a strategy of targeted supervision.

Several states have begun to take advantage of the strategic opportunities offered by the concentration of crime. Arizona, Nevada and Pennsylvania, for example, have shortened supervision time for offenders who follow the rules of their release, thereby reducing the number of low-risk offenders on active caseloads and allowing probation officers to focus their efforts on those who are breaking the rules. In Maryland, parole agents are assigned to neighborhood-based caseloads in four parts of the state, a tactic that is credited in part with
a 31 percent reduction in arrests compared to traditional supervision.4

Despite these and other changes, efforts at reforming community supervision strategies are still nascent.  While recognizing the needfor change, many states spread their efforts too thin. Some agencies fail to adapt because of bureaucratic inertia: it’s just “the way they’ve always done business.” Others face political pressure and legal requirements to maintain active caseloads of low-level offenders, depleting resources that could be used more efficiently on those who are more likely to re-offend.

However, the growing recognition that crime is heavily concentrated, along with mounting pressure on state budgets, is compelling more policy makers to encourage community supervision agencies to target the riskiest cases. By using risk assessment instruments to identify higher-risk offenders, community corrections departments can place them on higher-intensity caseloads to reduce crime and returns to prison. At the same time, they can save money and free up caseloads by allowing lower-risk offenders to earn their way off supervision by
complying with the terms of their probation or parole. States can cut additional costs by consolidating their resources using a geographically targeted approach to put community corrections officers and intervention programs where they are needed most. Ultimately, a new strategy of targeted community corrections can help cut the massive and still rising parole and probation rolls, while
at the same time saving money and reducing crime.


Over the past two decades, the total population of this country’s community corrections system nearly doubled (from 2.6 million to 5.1 million offenders), 30 probation and parole terms became longer, and supervision strategies aimed more and more at control of offender behavior.

Ironically, however, these changes have led to higher costs as a significant number of probation and parole “failures” enter—or reenter—our prison system each year.31 Only 57 percent of the 2.2 million adults discharged from probation in 2006 were successful, compared to 69 percent in 1990.32 Among the parole population, the numbers are even lower:
only 44 percent of the 520,000 parolees discharged in 2006 fulfilled the conditions of their supervision, compared to 50 percent in 1990.33 In some states, as many as two out of every three prison admissions are for probation and parole revocations.34

Thankfully, several innovative community corrections practices are bucking these national trends. A growing research base and an emerging consensus among corrections experts have identified a number of successful approaches, including use of reliable assessment instruments to identify offenders’ risk levels and develop case management plans that target the individual’s specific risk factors.

Other successful practices include partnering with law enforcement and community organizations such as health-care providers and faith-based organizations, and incorporating family, friends and
employers directly into assessment, case planning and supervision to provide the broadest possible base of support. Finally, monitoring increasingly includes rewards and incentives for positive behavior, as well as swift and certain sanctions, such as community service or short jail stays, for violations of supervision rules.

Combined with these approaches, concentrated supervision strategies can help to achieve positive results for public safety and offender reintegration. The current climate, in which states are
actively searching for solutions to reduce crime and corrections costs, provides policy makers a important opportunity to test and benefit from these new strategies

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