How New York City has shown that “less is more” when it comes to probation supervision

A troika of reports and statements were issued recently, urging American policy makers to curb the number of people on probation and parole as a way of both improving safety and reducing their unnecessary deprivation of liberty. Reports by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice and the Pew Charitable Trusts Public Safety Performance Project bolster the conclusion in the Statement on the Future of Community Corrections, signed onto by the nation’s leading probation and parole administrators, that community corrections is a “significant contributor to mass incarceration” that should be “significantly reduced.”

While many jurisdictions around the country are endeavoring to shrink the footprint of community corrections, New York City is exhibit A in doing so safely and effectively. Over the past two decades, under Republican, Independent and Democratic mayoral administrations, the number of people on probation in New York City has dropped significantly. At the same time, the city’s violent crime and incarceration rates have also declined substantially, leaving New York as the safest and least incarcerated big city in America.

Since the mid-90s, the city’s probation population has been declining and is now less likely to include those who don’t actually need probation supervision. During that time, the number of people on probation in New York City dropped by roughly two-thirds, from more than 68,000 to fewer than 22,000. By 2014, only 4.3 percent of New York’s felony arrestees were sentenced to probation, while 25.8 percent received conditional discharges or other informal dispositions.

Did this two-thirds reduction in community supervision jeopardize public safety? Did jail populations skyrocket as the system made less use of probation as an alternative to incarceration? The answer to both questions is a resounding no.

From 1996, the city’s violent crime rate declined by 57 percent, and its jail and prison incarceration rate dropped by 55 percent leaving New York as one of the safest and least incarcerated cities in America.

Additionally, the nature of probation in the city changed, making more targeted use of resources to probation clients with higher risk of rearrest. In 1996, the city began to use electronic kiosk reporting instead of in-person reporting for low-risk clients who make up a significant portion of the city’s probation caseload. Research on the kiosk program found that rearrests for both high and low risk probation clients declined after it was expanded.

Lengths of stay on New York City probation have been shortened in two different and important ways as well. From 2007 to 2012, the number of people discharged early as a reward for compliance with probation conditions grew almost six-fold, from three to 17 percent. Research from 2010 showed that only 3 percent of the clients released early from probation were rearrested on felony charges within a year of discharge versus 4.3 percent of clients who continued on probation until their maximum expiration date.

New York State policymakers also changed state law allowing judges to give shorter probation terms. Sixteen percent of persons placed on probation in New York City for felonies during the law’s first year (2014) were sentenced to less than the maximum, compared to 3 percent in the rest of the state.

With fewer people on probation, the per capita budget for those remaining on probation increased dramatically despite a significant overall decrease to the department’s budget. In 2002, the budget was $96.8 million for a caseload of 75,000, for a per capita average of $1,290. By 2016, as its caseload declined, the probation department’s budget dropped to $73 million. However, for the remaining 21,000 probation clients, the per capita spending was $3,476 — more than double the 2002 level, controlling for inflation. This has allowed the department to fund a variety of programmatic initiatives, including the NeON (Neighborhood Opportunity Network) Centers, a series of decentralized neighborhood offices offering a variety of employment and education programs, the Arches mentoring program that is facilitated by credible messenger mentors, and ACE (Anyone Can Excel), a supervision model for young people aged 16-24. From 2010 to 2014, the department increased the number of contracts for community-based non-profit services (from two to 54), thus truly returning the “community” to community corrections.

In this era of shrinking government resources, the ability to have fewer people under supervision holds the potential for improving outcomes and having more safety without expending more tax resources. That kind of “win-win” situation doesn’t come along much in public administration circles, and should be capitalized on by policy makers.

[Schiraldi will present the findings of his and Jacobson’s Less is More paper On October 11 at John Jay College’s Smart on Crime Innovations Conference.]

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