Privatizing Probation and Parole

Policy Reports | Crime

No. 233
Thursday, June 01, 2000
by Morgan O. Reynolds

Executive Summary

One out of fifty adults free on the streets today is a convicted criminal released on probation or parole. That's 4.1 million people "under government supervision," and a majority are convicted felons. Some 50,000 government bureaucrats supervise these probationers and parolees.

The probation and parole systems have many problems, especially the fact that many of those released commit loathsome crimes.

  • Criminals under government supervision commit 15 murders a day.
  • Nearly four out of 10 people arrested for a felony crime are already out on probation, parole or pretrial release from a prior conviction or arrest.
  • One in 10 probationers and parolees "abscond."

This year state and federal prisons will release 600,000 convicts, 38 percent more than in 1990, because of the enormous increase in the prison population over the last decade. Most are released on parole or other supervision because they have not served their full sentence.

The probation and parole systems could be made more effective and efficient by enlisting the private sector. Those released on probation (nonincarceration) or released early from prison could be required to post a financial bond guaranteeing behavior in accord with terms of the release. If individual accountability is the answer to crime, then it must include the most powerful kind of accountability: financial responsibility.

How would this work? It would simply transfer the successful commercial principles of our bail system to the probation and parole systems. In accord with our civil liberties, the criminal justice system allows most people who are arrested and charged with a crime to be released on bail pending trial. Bail operates on the principle that the accused can go free once he guarantees his presence in court on a certain date by posting a significant sum of money. If he shows up, he gets his money back; if he doesn't, he suffers a major financial loss.

Since many defendants do not have the money, the market provides the professional bail bondsman, or bail agent. If the bail agent is willing, he posts the entire bond in exchange for a fee, customarily 10 percent of the total bond. The bail agent loses the bond amount if the defendant fails to show up in court.

The private bail system works well, especially compared to public pretrial release programs ("free bonds") which have twice the failure-to-appear-in-court rates, fugitive rates and arrest rates of surety bond releases. Bail improves pretrial release behavior at no expense to taxpayers, and thus plays a key role in seeing that justice is done.

A bonding system promises to do the same for postconviction behavior. Harris county (Houston), Texas, operates a blended system of commercial bond posting and public supervision for pretrial releases with very good results, judging by a major drop in bench warrants issued for absconding. This amounts to partial privatization or contracting out an aspect of pretrial supervision to the private sector.

Organizations like the National Association of Bail Insurance Companies and the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national bipartisan group of conservative legislators, have pressed the idea that financially secured postconviction release works far better than unsecured release, and have formed alliances with law enforcement groups. Active opposition consists of parole and probation agencies, who fear invasion of their turf. But the promise of superior performance in reducing crime at lower taxpayer cost has strong appeal.

Thus far no bond for probation or parole has been written. Yet legislators are disgusted with the disrespect for the unsecured probation and parole system displayed by criminals. Bonding and the implied partial or complete privatization of postrelease supervision is a good idea whose time may be near.

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