As states continue to grapple with fixing aspects of our criminal justice system from the top, they should keep an eye on California and a bill sitting on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk that looks to modify how courts handle probation in the state.
Special to CalMatters
Nearly a quarter of a million people are on probation in California – more than those in state jails and prisons combined – but Assembly Bill 1950 sitting on the governor’s desk could make the state safer, save it money and decrease that number carefully all at the same time.
Probation is part of the “correctional supervision” aspect of the criminal justice system. It is a type of community supervision that can occur after a period of incarceration, or in lieu of incarceration all together.
In its best form, probation should connect individuals to needed services and address root causes of criminal behavior to prevent reoffense. Unfortunately, the criminal justice system overuses this tool as a one-size-fits-all solution, with individuals in some states spending decades on probation without benefits to them or the community.
Lengthy Probation Terms Can Increase the Likelihood That Courts Incarcerate for Technical Violations
The bill would reduce the term of probation to one year for a misdemeanor and two years for a felony, time period restrictions that make a lot of sense from the research. The initial period of probation is the most crucial to successful reentry and adjustment to daily life on the outside. Also, most issues occur during this initial period, after which the utility of keeping individuals on probation starts to diminish.
Community supervision past this initial term is not only an unnecessary expense, evidence shows it may actually reduce community safety. Researchers have found that lengthy probation terms can disincentivize engaging in rehabilitative programs, and counterproductively increase obstacles to housing and employment. I can attest to this firsthand from my experience as a public defender. Sometimes probation conditions can even interfere with an individual’s ability to have a full-time job, since probation requirements can occur during work hours.
Additionally, lengthy probation terms can increase the likelihood that courts incarcerate for technical violations. When individuals violate a condition of probation, such as showing up late to an appointment or traveling beyond county lines, but have not committed new offenses, they can be found guilty of a “technical violation” and incarcerated.
Many States Have Called for Much-Needed Reforms
These conditions might seem reasonable in isolation, but taken together and combined with long terms that sometimes amount to five to 10 years, or even longer, they can become nearly impossible for those on probation to comply. A single technical violation can result in a loss of all the positive time spent on probation, a forfeit of all earned credit for time spent without violations. These technical violations cost California $235 million annually in incarceration costs, likely without corresponding public safety benefits.
Many states have called for much-needed reforms to address the racial disparities in our justice system. Assembly Bill 1950 does not obviously address these issues, but may help more than meets the eye.
The supervision system is riddled with racial disparities similar to those in our jails and prisons, with Black citizens, who make up 7.9% of the general population, constituting 22.9% of those entering probation supervision. Reducing probation lengths can help limit the negative impact the system has on Blacks, while balancing providing services during the pivotal initial period of reentry.
Decreasing probation lengths is good policy – consistent with public safety. Given all the crises California is already facing, from COVID-19 to wildfires, helping some of our most vulnerable community members to re-enter society is the right thing to do.
About the Author
Nila Bala is the associate director of Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties at the R Street Institute, and a former public defender, firstname.lastname@example.org.