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Returns to Prison for Supervision Violations: Full Disclosure

Probation and parole violators have been identified as significant drivers of state prison populations.  Many high profile publications including one released earlier this week by the Council of State Governments note that technical violations for things like missing appointments with a parole officer or having a positive drug test account for up to twenty-five percent of annual prison admissions, costing taxpayers nearly three billion dollars per year. On its face, returning someone to prison for not complying one-hundred percent of the time with a long list of standard and special supervision conditions seems petty and inefficient; it’s like launching a nuclear weapon when a round of diplomacy or coaching might correct behavior.  Critics argue that probationers and former inmates struggling with substance abuse relapse, perhaps combined with mental health needs, should not be placed in jail or prison, but rather connected to community treatment and other resources.

In my experience, it is very uncommon for anyone on community supervision to be revoked for a single technical violation, including a drug positive. And at least in PA, probationers and parolees are referred to appropriate, licensed community treatment providers.  I have reviewed dozens and dozens of offender files that describe a reentrants experience returning to the community. Some of these files show reentrants struggling right away, missing appointments, failing to abide by curfew if they are residing in a community corrections center or contract facility, and testing positive for illegal substances.  These same files show that reentrants receive a “counseling session,” for violations like not showing up for a meeting with a probation officer. I’ve reviewed many cases where parolees with drug positives are referred to “half-way back” programs which provide in-patient drug and alcohol treatment for several months.  In some cases, reentrants finish in-patient treatment, are released to the community again and within weeks, sometimes even days, relapse.  Some reentrants are then referred to outpatient drug and alcohol treatment.

These days, when a reentrant has their community supervision revoked, it is usually after eight, nine, ten even more recorded violations including multiple positive drug tests and having participated in community-based treatment.  Then there are the reentrants who are arrested for a new crime while on community supervision and returned to incarceration as a result.  And we know how common it is for reentrants to pick up a new charge, 44 percent do so within the first year of release.  An arrest isn’t a conviction, but if incarceration for a serious charge isn’t an appropriate response, I’m not sure what alternatives are. There are tools and strategies that we could and should use more, such as quick dips in jail in response to violations.  But the truth is that probation and parole officers usually have good reasons for revoking a reentrant, even when the revocation reads “technical.”  If a reentrant fails to remain drug-free for a reasonable period of time after having relapsed in the community and completed community treatment (and it isn’t their first experience to be sure), there may well be a legitimate concern that the reentrant will commit a crime perhaps theft or robbery to sustain their drug habit.  Doesn’t every publication talking about the number of crimes and criminals point out the very high percentage of criminals who were high at the time they committed their crime? What other options might community supervision officers have?  Maybe day reporting for certain struggling offenders.  Whatever option or options used comes at a price.  Someone is paying for half-way back placement which is expensive at more than $100 per person per day. Day reporting has a cost so does electronic monitoring.

One of my frustrations with the description and discussion of supervision violations is that there is little if any attention paid to the sanctions and referrals to community treatment that happen before the decision is made to return someone to incarceration.  And while there is no doubt incarceration can do damage and is costly, referring someone to community treatment, sometimes multiple rounds of community treatment, is not without cost. It might be reasonably argued that reentrants who persistently use illegal drugs after receiving treatment could very well cause community harm and harm to themselves.

It is important to have a fair, accurate, complete picture of community supervision violations, not just present selected facts to sell a sweeping reform agenda.

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