Originally published in The Hill

by David Safavian

As state and local leaders grapple with real-time challenges created by COVID-19, most are facing a looming pandemic hangover: a fiscal crisis of staggering proportions. Already, policymakers around the country are confronting gaping holes in their budgets that are forcing them to cut services, furlough government workers and make other painful choices. Few analysts foresee an economic bounce-back anytime soon that will replenish government coffers.

As they weigh a host of unattractive options, policymakers should look to their probation and parole systems — known as “community supervision” — for potential cost savings. By improving strategies to manage people on probation and parole, governments can save money, help more people lead stable, productive lives, and maintain safe neighborhoods.

Nationwide, 4.5 million people were on probation or parole before the pandemic. That number is twice the prison and jail population. The eye-opening size, cost and inefficiencies of the community supervision system have been largely overlooked by policymakers hungry for criminal justice reform.

But that’s begun to change. Even before COVID-19, a growing number of criminal justice experts and advocates were pushing to reshape probation and parole into systems that promote success, rather than ones that drive unnecessary incarceration. The pandemic has made those arguments — and the need for cost-effective, research-based supervision practices — more compelling.

Probation and parole originally were intended to be a less punitive alternative to imprisonment. But the system has evolved into one laced with tripwires for failure. Excessive rules make compliance difficult for people struggling to maintain jobs and support families. And an unforgiving system has turned community supervision into a leading contributor to incarcerated populations. Indeed, the Council of State Governments reports that nearly a quarter of all state prison admissions in 2017 were for breaking minor supervision rules known as technical violations — things such as opening a credit account or failing a drug test.

Fortunately, we are seeing new, research-backed strategies to strengthen community supervision in ways that save money through reduced incarceration, and also to improve outcomes for people on probation and parole. Two organizations in the field — the Pew Charitable Trusts and Arnold Ventures — released a playbook of more than 50 policy solutions that can lead to more effective and smaller community supervision systems.

Recommendations include:

    • ​Limiting the use of arrest and incarceration as a sanction for technical violations of supervision rules;​
    • ​Using alternatives to incarceration and supervision, such as community service, for people who commit minor, nonviolent offenses;
    • ​Adopting shorter supervision terms and releasing people from supervision early to encourage people to follow the rules and complete certain programs; and​
    • Tailoring supervision conditions to individual needs and imposing only those conditions that benefit public safety.

These commonsense steps encourage people on probation and parole to learn from their mistakes and become productive, law-abiding citizens again. In doing so, we can improve public safety, reduce unnecessary supervision and incarceration, and save money.

Some jurisdictions have begun embracing these approaches and seeing results. Louisiana uses a type of pre-arrest diversion known as “Citation in lieu of arrest”. Under this policy, law enforcement officers issue citations for misdemeanors and other low-level offenses, rather than making arrests. This reduces incarceration costs and, during the pandemic, the risk of COVID-19 contagion.

Other jurisdictions have realized that for people accused of technical violations, an arrest warrant can upend employment, housing and child care, while providing little benefit to public safety. To minimize disruptions and cut incarceration costs, Minnesota and other states now issue technical violators a summons to appear in court for a revocation hearing, rather than an arrest warrant, absent concerns about flight risk or public safety.

Limiting the length of supervision is another effective strategy. Research shows there is a point of diminishing returns for multi-year supervision sentences. Florida, for example, is among the states that now limit the length of felony probation terms to two years, and prosecutors around the country are adopting caps on supervision length as well.

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. As we work through a health care crisis and fiscal disaster, we certainly have the necessity. These tools create a path for policymakers to cut costs and reduce COVID-19 risks, while improving public safety. Indeed, it is that rare unicorn in policymaking: a win-win-win.

David Safavian is the general counsel of the American Conservative Union Foundation and the deputy director of its Nolan Center for Justice. Follow him on Twitter @DSafavianEsq.