Probation may make sense as a non- prison alternative for petty offenders. But probation for serious adult offenders -- more likely to result from a shortage of prison space than from a careful consideration of community safety -- is an unmitigated disaster.
The Rand Corp. study that reached this conclusion was based on a 40- month study of California felons. But the researchers, headed by criminologist Joan Petersilia, say there is no reason to believe the situation is much different in most other jurisdictions.
Not only do most felony probationers tend to end up in prison as a result of new convictions, the study found, but the very act of putting large numbers of felons on probation tends to destroy the integrity of the criminal justice system.
To begin with, probation departments, given their increased caseloads and reduced budgets, cannot possibly provide the close supervision that would give the system a chance to work. But it's a lot worse than that.
Felony offenders, who naturally demand the most attention from overworked probation departments, "appear to have crowded out the traditional probationer population -- first offenders, petty thieves, drug offenders, and disrupters -- many of whom evidently see the system's 'indifference' as encouragement to commit more serious crimes." (A reasonable belief that they can "get away with it" is, as Rand found in an earlier study, a hallmark of career criminals.)
At one level, the findings of the Rand study (prepared for the National Institute of Justice) are pretty much what an ordinary citizen might expect -- if that ordinary citizen knew the extent to which overcrowded prisons have forced reliance on probation for felons.
At another level, it' worse than most of us suspected, and the problem feeds on itself.
"Without alternative sanctions for serious offenders," the study concluded, "prison populations will continue to grow (as probationers are incarcerated for new offenses), and the courts will be forced to consider probation for more and more serious offenders. Probation caseloads will increase, petty offenders will be increasingly 'ignored' by the system (possibly creating more career criminals), and recidivism rates will rise.
"In short, probation appears to be heading toward an impasse, if not a total breakdown, if substantially more funds are not made available to create more prison space."
Since that is unlikely, given budget constraints in most jurisdictions, and probably not desirable in any case, what does it make sense to do?
The Rand researchers offer some suggestions, beginning with better techniques for predicting which felons will be least likely to commit new offenses. Parole officers, whose work traditionally has involved the supervision and counseling of petty offenders, must have new police-like powers to deal with paroled felons.
One key recommendation is heavier reliance on intense surveillance programs that would require felony probationers to be gainfully employed, to be at home between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. every day, and perhaps to undertake some form of community service.
Such a system would cost substantially more than probation now does (perhaps probationers themselves could be billed for part of the cost of their supervision), but it would be far less costly than building and staffing new prisons. The evidence of the Rand study is that the criminal justice system needs a range of possible punishments that, under the present arrangement, simply does not exist.
The present alternatives for convicted offenders are either to lock them up or to put them on probation. The former costs too much, and the latter, as the Rand study makes disturbingly clear, does more harm than good.