Privatizing Probation and Parole

Policy Reports | Crime

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

The Failing Probation and Parole System

Figure I - Persons on Probation%2C 1998

"More than 4.1 million people are under the supervision of the criminal justice system, but free on the streets."

At the end of 1998 (the latest year for which statistics are available), more than 4.1 million people in the United States were under the supervision of the criminal justice system, yet free on the streets - 3.4 million on probation and 705,000 on parole.1 That's one in 50 adults. As Figure I shows, of those convicted and released to straight probation (nonincarceration), 57 percent were convicted of a felony crime (punishable by one year or more in prison), 40 percent of misdemeanors and the remaining 3 percent of other infractions. As for parole, more than four of every five prisoners are released short of serving their full sentences in favor of some form of "community supervision." A large public bureaucracy of probation and parole officers - 50,000 probation officers alone - is responsible for supervising these offenders.

Criminals Commit New Crimes. There are major problems with the performance of the current probation and parole systems. Many of those on probation or parole commit new crimes, some brutal and highly publicized. For example:

  • Kenneth McDuff, a rapist and multiple killer from Texas whose death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, was paroled- and shortly raped and murdered another woman.
  • A California parolee abducted and murdered 12-year-old Polly Klaas in a case that drew national attention.
  • In Florida, Louis Brooks served six years of a 15-year sentence for rape, then was paroled and returned to rape the same elderly woman in her home.
  • One killer of former basketball star Michael Jordan's father was a parolee, and his accomplice was under indictment.
  • While on probation, Buford Furrow killed a Filipino letter carrier and wounded five people when he opened fire on a Jewish day-care center in Los Angeles.

"Thirty-six percent of persons arrested for felony crimes are already on probation, parole or pretrial release."

In Furrow's case, a judge in Washington state had ordered that he give up his guns, but the probation officer never checked to make sure he had done so. Nor did the officer ever make any of the recommended visits to Furrow's home.2

This is par for the course, according to a recent comprehensive study by the Manhattan Institute, a product of two years' work by 14 experienced practitioners in the field, including leaders of the two industry associations.3 Other data tell much the same story.

  • Thirty-six percent of persons arrested for felony crimes are already on probation, parole or pretrial release.4
  • A summary of 17 follow-up studies of adult felony probationers found that felony rearrest rates ranged from 12 to 65 percent.5
  • More than 10 percent of those convicted of murder in Virginia from 1990 to 1993 were on probation at the time they killed.
  • Nationwide, probationers convicted in 1991 were responsible for at least 6,400 murders, 7,400 rapes, 10,400 assaults and 17,000 robberies.6

Violators of parole and conditional release made up 206,000 of the 565,000 admissions to state prisons in 1998.7 Even those who complete parole and conditional release supervision ("discharge") return to prison or jail at the rate of 42 percent.8 As editor Joseph Farah points out, criminals under government supervision commit 15 murders a day.9

Figure II - Makeup of the Probation Bureaucracy

"Of 50,000 employees in the probation bureaucracy, only 4,420 supervise felons."

Little Supervision. In the probation bureaucracy of 50,000, only an estimated 11,500 directly supervise adult probationers, according to the National Institute for Justice Journal, producing an average caseload of 258 adult offenders versus an "ideal caseload" of 30.10 Another study calculates that only 4,420 of these officers supervise felons, an average caseload of 337.11 [See Figure II.]

Clearly, probation officers have more cases than they can effectively handle and relatively few incentives to perform energetically and efficiently.

  • In nearly 70 percent of cases, probation officers do not make "collateral contact" to verify such things as employment or attendance in drug treatment programs.12
  • At any one time, 1 in 10 adult probationers cannot be located because they have absconded.13

There have been relatively few scientific studies of the impact of probation on probationers. An estimated 43 percent of felony probationers and 62 percent of parolees are rearrested within three years, and the risk of arrest is highest in the first year.14 More intensive forms of supervision have no differential impact on rearrests compared to ordinary probation, although probation appears to reduce criminal activities compared to prearrest periods when not on probation.15 Unfortunately, this impact reflects lower property and drug-dealing crimes, not reductions in violent crime.16

Similar problems affect the parole system. Not only are there too few officers to monitor parolees but parole boards are often forced to parole criminals to alleviate shortages of prison beds rather than decide which criminals are truly ready for a return to community life.17 In 2000 nearly 600,000 state and federal prisoners will be released, a 38 percent boost over 1990, and four of five will be on parole or other conditional release.18

We can make the probation and parole systems more effective and efficient by turning to the private sector. Privatization is not a radical concept; it would involve little more than transferring the principles of the commercial bail bonding system, used successfully for criminal defendants, to those found guilty of crimes but eligible for early release on probation or parole.19

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