Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, with Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, recently published an op-ed in Time magazine arguing for reform in the way we treat individuals who have violated probation. The Missouri Department of Corrections has made great strides in reducing the number of persons returned to prison for probation violations, but his solution is just one part of a larger problem.
Individuals who violate their probation are typically sent to jail to await a violation hearing; however, jails have largely been ignored from the policy debates. In order to truly address the number of people behind bars due to non-violent offenses like probation violations — not because they pose a threat to the community — our lawmakers and other leaders must consider local jails, as well as prisons, as opportunities for reform. And in this way, St. Louis County can help serve as a model for what’s working.
Unlike prisons, jails are intended to hold people pretrial who are a threat to the community or are deemed a flight risk. This means people in jail have yet to be convicted of a crime. Yet jails can have negative consequences for the lives of detained individuals. Jails are designed for short stays, and many are not equipped to address the many needs of this population. Jail stays are also disruptive to individuals’ lives, creating new stressors for those serving time and for their families. Even short stays can have negative effects on marriages and families, employment, and long-term earning potential; in some communities, individuals have been made to pay for incarceration. The costs are many, but there is no evidence that incarceration for probation violations reduces future criminal activity.
The jail population is a critical cog in the criminal justice system and is rife for reform. The jail population continues to grow, increasing 296% in the past 30 years, as does the cost of maintaining jails, nearly all of which falls on local communities and taxpayers. Missouri faces substantial challenges in managing its probation and jail populations.
In 2016, approximately 5,000 individuals had their probation revoked and were returned to jail, and eventually prison, for a technical violation, not new criminal behavior. Technical violations typically represent failures to comply with the terms of supervision, like maintaining employment or meeting attendance. Many who do not comply with probation struggle with substance abuse disorders and are not a threat to safety and would be better off with community treatment and local supervision, which is more cost-effective and successful than institutional services.
Despite the high cost of incarceration and the potential negative consequences of jail, this population is typically not considered in criminal justice reform, and there are very few best practices. Three years ago, St. Louis County developed an Expedited Probation Violation Program, with funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge. This strategy was designed to identify individuals awaiting a hearing for a probation violation who would be better served by treatment for mental health or substance abuse issues rather than by detention, and expedite the court process to divert candidates from jail to community-based treatment. Probation officers working in the jail work in concert with jail case managers to identify risk and needs to ensure proper follow-through, while maintaining safety in the community.
The program has led to a reduction in the jail population and a reduced length of stay. As a result of the intervention, the population of probation detainees has decreased by 40% in the last three years. As important, the length of stay for this population has been reduced from more than 75 days to less than 25, a 66% decline. This type of intervention has the potential to reduce costs to taxpayers and increase services to individuals on probation and is an example of truly system-wide reform.
In short, holding individuals who have violated their probation may be a quick fix for problematic behavior, but this type of programming has the potential to exacerbate mental health challenges, create substantial barriers to employment, and put strains on families. There are other models, like the one implemented in St. Louis County, which have the potential to keep the community safe while reducing the costs of incarceration for individuals, families and taxpayers. As the governor and others look to reduce the number of people incarcerated for non-violent crimes, such as probation violation, I encourage them to support local justice system reforms underway in places like St. Louis County.
Beth Huebner is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.