U.S. Probation Population Continues to Drop: Who’s Leading the Way and Why

The Bureau of Justice Statistics released a new report yesterday showing that the number of adults under community supervision declined by 1.3 percent in 2010.  Entitled Probation and Parole in the United States, 2010, the report summarizes the most recent national data on community supervision.  The decline in 2010 built on a smaller drop in 2009, and may point toward a long-term retreat from the massive increase in the American supervised population that occurred in the 1980′s and 1990′s.

Yet, even following a two-year drop, the supervised population stood at 4,887,900 at the end of 2010, or about one in every 48 adults.  This compares to a supervised population of less than 1.4 million in 1980.

The supervised population includes both probationers and those released from prison to community supervision.  (BJS refers to the latter population as “parolees,” although many jurisdictions no longer use the term “parole.”)  The overall drop in the supervised population was driven entirely by a 1.7 percent decline in probationers; the number of parolees actually increased slightly in 2010.  Like the overall drop, the probation decline in 2010 built on a smaller drop in 2009.

Why are fewer Americans on probation?  The report provides no definitive answers, but some clues are apparent.


For instance, the probation drop is not a uniform national phenomenon:

Declines in California, Florida, Minnesota, Texas, and Maryland accounted for 54% of the total decrease among states whose probation population declined during 2010. California (down 18,854 probationers) and Florida (down 11,228) accounted for almost a third of the decrease.

Why are these states leading the way in reducing probation populations?  Five possibilities suggest themselves: (1) crime rates are down, (2) fewer crimes are resulting in arrest and conviction, (3) fewer convicted criminals are being sentenced to probation (which might result from greater lenience or greater harshness), (4) probation terms are shorter, or (5) more probationers are being revoked and incarcerated.

An examination of the crime data in the Big Five states for probation reductions lends support to the first hypothesis.  According to the FBI’s uniform crime data, each of the Big Five experienced drops in both violent and property crime in 2010.  In fact, of the Big Five, two (Florida and Texas) experienced drops in crime rate that far exceeded the decline in the probation population, which suggests that the probation decline in those states may be entirely driven by reduced crime.  The California and Maryland probation drops are also probably largely driven by crime reductions, although other factors also seem to be at play.  California’s reduction in violent crime slightly exceeded the drop in its probation population, but its property crime reduction was much less.  Maryland had large drops in both violent and property crime, but neither reduction matched the whopping 7.2 percent decline in the state’s probation population.

Minnesota is the big mystery among the Big Five.  The state led the nation with a 7.8 percent drop in its probation population, but its reductions in violent and property crime were only 2.8 and 2.0 percent, respectively.  This suggests that the probation decline results mainly from decisions being made in the criminal-justice system, rather than from crime-rate reductions.

Also mysterious to me are the large increases in the probation populations in Alabama, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Arizona.  Crime rates declined in all four states in 2010; indeed, the reductions far outstripped the overall national crime-rate decline in two of them (Alabama and Arizona).  Perhaps these states are systematically diverting more offenders from prison as a cost-cutting measure in these fiscally challenging times.

On a national level, it appears that reduced length of stay on probation may also be contributing to the population reduction, with a drop of about 1.4 percent in mean length of stay between 2008 (22.0 months) and 2010 (21.7 months).  The incarceration rate for probationers has remained steady at nine percent during that time, so reduced length of stay does not seem a consequence of higher revocation rates.  More generally, there has been a trend toward more positive outcomes for probationers: between 2006 and 2009, the percentage of probationers who completed their terms and were discharged increased from 58 percent to 65 percent.  Of course, this may result from reduced supervision instead of improved performance.

Interestingly, the reduced rovocation rate for probationers mirrors a similar trend for parolees: the rate of parolees who exited supervision and returned to incarceration dropped between 2009 (24 per 100 parolees) and 2010 (22 per 100), continuing a trend that has been observed since 2006 (26 per 100).

This reduction in the rate of parole revocations does indeed likely result, at least in part, from reduced supervision:

While most of the characteristics of the parole population remained unchanged, some changes were observed during 2010. Active supervision requires parolees to report regularly to a parole authority in person, by mail, or by telephone. This type of supervision decreased as a percentage of all parolees, from 85% in 2009 to 82% in 2010. A corresponding increase in the percentage of parolees on inactive status, excluded from regular reporting but still on parole, was observed between 2009 (4%) and 2010 (7%).

Cross posted at Life Sentences Blog.

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