The law is clear that prior to revoking probation, a judge has to analyze what the appropriate alternative is. It is not always an easy analysis. Several years ago I had a contested revocation hearing. The defendant was a long time crack addict. He had been clean for nearly a year and had become employed for substantially all of that year. He liked his job and his employer liked him. And then he tested positive for marijuana. His probation officer wanted to send him to prison. I asked the probation officer, “Not to excuse the weed smoking, but with these facts do you see the defendant as making progress or being a failure?” The probation officer unhesitatingly said, “He is a failure.” I replied that I saw the defendant as making progress. Dealing with chemically dependency is not easy because relapse is a prevalent part of the disease.
Governing Magazine reports that, “Probation and parole were designed as alternatives to time in prison, but they often end up having the opposite effect.Nationwide, 45 percent of admissions to state prisons are the result of probation or parole violations. Sometimes these violations are serious, but most involve technicalities, such as botched paperwork, curfew violations or missing a drug test, according to a report released Tuesday by the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center.
“Many states have made recidivism reduction a public safety priority,” says Megan Quattlebaum, the center’s director, “but the harsh reality is that supervision fails nearly as often as it succeeds.”
States spend $9.3 billion a year incarcerating people for parole or probation violations, according to CSG. About a third of that, $2.8 billion, is spent locking people up for technical violations. That doesn’t include the cost of housing inmates in local jails.
Although it has long been clear that parole and probation violations account for a substantial share of prison admissions, the CSG report is the first effort to collect information from all 50 states.
“We’ve had data on individual states but never a complete national picture,” says Adam Gelb, founder and director of the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonprofit group.
Many states have changed their sentencing laws and reentry programs to cut down on prison recidivism over the past decade, but the incarceration of parole and probation violators is just starting to draw wider attention.
“This has been the dirty little secret of the system for decades,” Gelb says. “It’s a huge driver of prison populations and costs.”