A recent study by The Council of State Governments (CSG) sheds light on this failure when it comes to probation and parole. On average “45 percent of state prison admissions nationwide are due to violations of probation or parole for new offenses or technical violations.”

In 20 states, over half the prison population had their supervision revoked. Technical violations, such as missing appointments with supervision officers or failing drug tests, account for nearly a quarter of all state prison admissions. Said another way, over 145,000 people are sent to prisons for these types of violations each year.

At least 39 percent of Tennessee’s new admissions were for a technical violation of probation or parole. However, Public Safety Act of 2016 (PSA), has had a positive impact in reducing this percentage. Prior to its enactment, technical violations made up close to 50 percent of new admissions to the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC).

PSA designed a system of graduated sanctions for technical violations of probation and parole. Graduated sanctions allow probation or parole officers to impose an administrative sanction rather than calling on a court to revoke supervision and put the person in prison.

TDOC reports that with the implementation of graduated sanctions, “prison admissions for a technical violation are down cumulatively by 21 percent since FY 2014, representing 1,200 fewer admissions to prison in FY 2018.”  The cost reduction associated with this decline totals $32 million, which has allowed TDOC to reinvest $5.6 million for additional supervision staff, including counselors, which has reduced caseloads.

There’s still room for improvement

Tennessee should explore reducing probationary terms or reduce the instances where the probationary periods are stacked for multiple charges. For example, Class E felonies, which is the lowest level, have an average probation term of two years. If someone is charged or convicted on multiple counts, their probation terms will be stacked, meaning a person convicted on three Class E felonies might receive a 13.8-year probation sentence.

The system should strive to establish periods of probation supervision that are sufficient to achieve corrected behavior. However, extending terms beyond that point only increase the likelihood that a probationer will commit a technical violation, a missed curfew for example, and wind up in prison.

Unnecessarily long probationary terms create burdensome caseloads for probation officers and stretch TDOC’s already limited resources. Tennessee should consider following the lead of states like Georgia, Alabama and Minnesota, and shorten its probationary periods.

If probation must be revoked, courts should be required to extend credit for the time served while on probation. Another option would be to create some incentivized credit toward early release as recently enacted in Georgia. Currently a person serving a ten-year probation term, can successfully complete the first nine years, fail a drug test, then have their probation revoked and be ordered to start the entire term over again, or made to serve a ten-year prison sentence.

In addition to draining limited resources without any notably public safety return, this practice can set people up to fail and bolster the probation to prison pipeline.

Parole reform should be looked at as well.

In 2018, only 21 percent of all the inmates released from prison were released on parole, compared to 31 percent in 2012. In fact, 42 percent of inmates “maxed out”, meaning they were released without any supervision or support for reentry. The 2019 General Assembly passed legislation that created a presumption in favor of parole for nonviolent Class D and Class E inmates who reached parole eligibility. However, more reform in the area of parole is imperative. We all want to see individuals successfully return to their communities and not reoffend.

Governor Lee recently announced that TDOC Commissioner Tony Parker will head up a subcommittee of the Governor’s Criminal Justice Task Force that will specifically focus on improving community supervision. This is good news for fairness, public safety, and fiscal responsibility in Tennessee. All indicators show that while Tennessee is ahead of the curve now, we intend to keep it that way.

Image credit: Inked Pixels

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