Can We Cut Probation Caseloads by 50 Percent?

DC Court House


So the bottom line is that we can “manage” the probation population by limiting interactions. But unlike the advocates, I’m not going to tell you that it’s without a risk to public safety.

The bottom line is that people caught up in criminal activity tend to continue their offending.

The American criminal justice system is vastly underfunded which means that we cannot be all things to all people.


Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr.

Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. 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


There are a number of organizations that want drastic reductions in the correctional population including cutting the American prison population by fifty percent.

This discussion has continued for decades with little to show for advocacy efforts. Most Americans want accountability from people who have harmed us.

Advocates are convinced that violent offenders and multi-repeat felons can be released from prison or go unsupervised without harm to public safety, which is not supported by the best available data.

Recidivism-Most Released From Prison Go Back to Prison

The most common understanding of recidivism is based on data from the US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, stating that two-thirds (68 percent) of prisoners released were arrested for a new crime within three years of release from prison, and three-quarters (77 percent) were arrested within five years.

Within 3 years of release, 49.7% of inmates either had an arrest that resulted in a conviction with a disposition of a prison sentence or were returned to prison without a new conviction because they violated a technical condition of their release; as did 55.1% of inmates within 5 years of release, see Crime in America-Recidivism.

Note that the majority of criminal activity is not reported to police, most reported crimes do not end in arrest, and that significant numbers of reported criminal cases are not prosecuted, thus the numbers above are undercounts.

There are categories of people released from prison where 85 percent were arrested in three years.

The bottom line is that people caught up in criminal activity tend to continue their offending.

But We Are Talking About Probation

Recidivism Of Felons On Probation, 1986-89

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.

Results showed that within 3 years of sentencing, 62 percent either had a disciplinary hearing for violating a condition of their probation or were arrested for another felony.

In addition, within 3 years, 46 percent had been sent to prison or jail or had absconded.

Fifty-three percent had special conditions attached to their probation, most often drug testing, drug treatment, or alcohol treatment.

The financial penalties imposed on the probationers included victim restitution (29 percent), court costs (48 percent), and probation supervision fees (32 percent), USDOJ.

Most On Probation are Felons

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, Crime in America.

The Case for Cuts in Probation

The number of Americans on parole or probation can be “significantly” reduced without endangering public safety, a coalition of the country’s leading community corrections executives, criminologists and advocates said Monday.

“Increasingly sophisticated research has shown that we can responsibly reduce probation and parole probations…to both significantly reduce the footprint of probation and parole and improve outcomes and public safety,” declared a statement signed by 35 current and former community corrections executives along with 20 top advocacy organizations and a number of criminal justice thought leaders around the nation.

The statement was issued simultaneously with a blockbuster report published by the Executive Session on Community Corrections at Harvard University’s Kennedy School that laid out a roadmap for slashing the number of people under probation supervision by 50 percent (emphasis added) over the next decade.

The report said the American community corrections system, which was originally developed as an alternative to incarceration, has in fact become “one of the most significant drivers” of mass incarceration today. The Crime Report

 So Who Is Right?

Advocates are going to ask for steep reductions in correctional populations because they are philosophically opposed to what they consider is an over-reliance on formal correctional sanctions.

Note that there have been reductions in the America correctional population, but by and large, those reductions remain small when looking at data over decades, Crime in America.

But there have been cuts:

There were 7,400,000 people under correctional supervision at its peak in 2007 and 6,741,000 people under correctional supervision in 2016 for a reduction of 659,000.

There were 786,000 people in local jails in at its peak in 2008 and 728,000 in 2015 for a reduction of 58,000.

There were 4,293,000 on probation in the peak year of 2007 and 3,790,000 in 2015 for a reduction of 503,000 people.

The prison population reached a historic high of 1,615,000 in 2009; currently, the number is 1,527,000 in 2015, a drop of 88,000.

With decades of declining crime (until recently), reductions were expected.

Can We Cut Probation Further?

Sure, but reductions come with public safety risks.

All anyone has to do is to look at prison and probation recidivism data to understand the risk.

Again, remember, most crime is not reported, most reported crimes do not end in an arrest, and substantial percentages of arrested crimes are not prosecuted, so the recidivism data cited is an undercount.

Also note that the state probation recidivism study only included felonies, not misdemeanors, thus the arrest rate for probationers would be much higher.

But Reductions Are Possible

The American criminal justice system is vastly underfunded which means that we cannot be all things to all people.

It probably is in our best interest to limit the number of people on probation simply because of the enormous number supervised by parole and probation agents; 200 offenders to one parole and probation agent ratios are not unusual.

Who do we cut? First, we need to divert all lower level and first-time offenders from the criminal justice system through specialty courts. For many minor offenses, we should warn and refer to social services.

Sentencing reform is necessary. Marijuana should be legalized or decriminalized. The possession of other drugs should be misdemeanors. There are endless “crimes” that involve questionable but not necessarily “criminal” behavior.

Multi-year sentences of probation should be eliminated. There are few (if any) who can comply with all the terms of probation over the course of two years or more.

Probation for all offenders should be limited to one year for successful compliance.

Judges should greatly limit special conditions. What they impose is often difficult to accomplish (i.e., employment, restitution, fines). What they impose is enforceable. Let parole and probation agencies assign special conditions as warranted.

Lower level offenders should be placed on kiosk supervision or a reporting schedule of once every six months.

There should be “allowances” for misbehavior. Not every offender will be employed. Not every offender will make his office visits as scheduled. They will move frequently and not report new addresses (i.e., they don’t want an officer showing up at the address of their girlfriend). Every indiscretion does not (and should not) mean revocation.

Note that mental illness is a condition of many (most?) offenders which mean that problems under supervision will be many, Crime in America. Social services are necessary to address mental health and extreme substance issues.

Bottom Line

So the bottom line is that we can “manage” the probation population by limiting interactions with lower level offenders.

But unlike the advocates, I’m not going to tell you that it’s without a risk to public safety. Parole and probation agencies can and do respond to problems (i.e., creating a nuisance in the community) that are an indicator of difficulties to come, regardless of supervision levels.

Those on parole and probation typically have numerous technical violations or new criminal charges. Thirty or more violations are not unusual. Most do not make restitution or pay fines or follow stay-away orders (observations are based on my 25 years of speaking for parole and probation agencies). There are an endless number of “successful” completions on supervision that involve partial compliance.

Most are heavily involved in mental health, and substance abuse issues, Crime in America, which means that “managing” them is a daunting undertaking.

But once again, the justice system cannot be all things to all people. Limiting interactions with lower level offenders provides the system with the ability to focus on those posing an obvious public safety risk.

Finally, we need to be honest. Whatever we do, we need to make sure that all citizens know what we are doing, and why.

Too often, parole and probation reforms are hidden from the public because we don’t want citizens and the media to know, simply because we are afraid they will not be supportive. If we make changes, we are obligated to be transparent. Let the chips fall where they may.


Crime in America at

Contact us at

Media on deadline, use

My book: “Success With The Media: Everything You Need To Survive Reporters and Your Organization,” is available at Amazon at

This is an ad-free website.

Reviews are appreciated.




  1. Mike Pozesny says:

    This is a complex question without the ability here to give it the space it deserves but here goes… 1) Felony probation gets the bad rap it deserves – if you don’t supervise you cannot expect positive results. 2) Probationers cannot live “legal lives” and earn their way through society when they won’t be hired except for the lowest paying jobs that exist where they are often immersed into the same culture and peer groups that got them into trouble in the first place. Excluding them from the workforce provides excuses and the adverse realities of survival that drives deviant behavior. 3) Non-violent felons and all misdemeanants could be privately supervised even if the state had to pay a private provider to do it so the state could focus on high-level offenders. 4) Use a medical model for non-violent probation because the enforcement model has proven to be ineffective. One of the major reasons they fail probation is they are broke. Use a Case Manager instead of a PO, couple a group counseling session with what is now a PO appointment to save them the expense of two different office contacts, drug screen more frequently, and require them in the office weekly but have the office open during nontraditional hours so you don’t make it impossible for them to get a job. Have the Case Managers report violators to the PO so an “Officer of the Court” can take the appropriate legal action and process the warrants the Case Managers provide. 5) Partner with the state unemployment office and put job search capacity in the probation office. It is stupid to spend millions of dollars on an unemployment office people cannot get to because they are unemployed. 6) Stop using POs to do counseling. It violates the ethics of the counseling profession, violates counseling confidentiality, and undermines the credibility of the counseling practice you force them to go to, and screws all the local counseling businesses in the area who should be your best friends in managing social deviance but aren’t because you compete with them. 6) Consolidate resources. Create “Probation Malls” where counseling, driver clinics, supervision, drug testing, job searches and everything else are co-located. Most of these people face logistics as a major problem. The government can lease space on a mass transit route and then sublet space in a creative arrangement where contractors can both save money and make money, provide services, and the defendants can more easily satisfy the probation requirements. 7) Bypass liberal courts who don’t want to hold law violators accountable by requiring – by statute – drug screening, counseling, job searches, and community service. Unless these people have to pay a price and be held accountable they will not see committing crimes as a risk greater than their potential rewards. 8) Train all police officers in Crisis Intervention and Mental Health. Treating everyone as a SWAT event alienates the public and undermines community policing investments the taxpayers already have a hard time paying for. Send MH cases to a MH court where they can proactively get the help they need. 9) Pass a law requiring parents of juvenile delinquents be enrolled in a pre-trial intervention program requiring drug screening, the parents required to attend parenting counseling, as a misdemeanor case of child neglect/abuse pending non-adjudication of charges if they successfully complete the program. Otherwise, violate them, put the kids where they will be safe, and scrub the future criminality their parents were facilitating them growing into. 10) Pass strict building code requirements where the local jurisdiction can condemn and destroy any buildings where evidence is found to harbor illegal drug activity and back-bill the legally deeded owners. If the owners don’t pay within 90 days the property becomes city/county property to be sold and/or processed as desired. We cannot clean up crime without eliminating the broken windows. 11) Transition the juvenile justice detention centers from youth daycares into military schools where these delinquents are taught the concepts of honor, integrity, leadership, self-reliance, and success and stop abusing the professionals who work with these young people by forcing them to deal with immature minds who have no respect for anyone including themselves. Require these kids to pass a Vo-tech program so they have some employment options other than distributing drugs or stealing from others. 12) Pay for this by adding a crime surcharge to every ticket written and every license plate purchased. Put most of the burden for paying for this on the backs of those who violate the law through surcharges but give them opportunities to work their way out of this. Always provide honest Community Service conversions of fees and fines to provide for indigence.

    When we look at America we see many wonderful people surrounded by filth and crime. Litter, crack houses, areas impossible for decent people to live in – all breed crime like a social disease. You want to clean up crime? Get a bulldozer and mow down the trash people have become accustomed to living in. Use volunteers, National Guard, and anyone else to start at one end of a town and clean it up to the other end while arresting and probating everyone who refuses to held accountable for their criminal actions. Give law abiding people some hope. Reduce expenses by distributing the enforcement and management intelligently. Many of these offenders are offenders because the only people they see getting anything done are criminals. Show, through action, that we are sick of crime that is draining investments we should be making in basic education. Putting good men and women of law enforcement into American neighborhoods equivalent to war zones over and over just increases the cynicism they have for their job, their injuries, and their deaths. Sooner, rather than later, working in law enforcement will only be attractive due to what it pays and we will have to pay much more than we currently are to find the kind of mercenaries who will be able to survive in a nation as corrupt as we are allowing this one to become. Support your local cops, respect them for being good people who thought they could do good things when they started in their career, and be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

    Crime is a cancer and all we do is band-aid it. Sanctuary cities and people marching to discriminate one criminal from another criminal when they are all criminals to one degree or the next is BS. You can’t have it both ways, folks. Either we are a nation of laws or we aren’t. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? What we have been doing is madness. The good people in this country, who are too busy working and paying taxes to scream nonsensical babble in the streets while being played by the looters, need us to think outside the box and try something new. What we are doing isn’t working. Let’s use some Six Sigma on our criminal justice process.

    • Hi Mike: A very comprehensive response. Do you want me to use it as an article? If so, provide a four sentence bio and how people can reach you. Best, Len.

  2. Art Beeler says:

    I so agree. Many people do not need the structure of incarceration, but they do need accountability, structure and General deterrence. The use of community supervision, especially if guided by risk analysis, provides pu pic safety for many who may be able to not be sent to prison but still need accountability and treatment.

%d bloggers like this: