In recent years, Utah has passed legislation to reduce the prison population while preserving public safety and saving taxpayer dollars. While its efforts are praiseworthy, these changes have exposed another problem-prone area: community supervision.
Fortunately, Gov. Gary Herbert has announced a task force charged with looking into probation and parole — the two primary community-based alternatives to incarceration.
Far more people are on probation and parole than are involved in any other part of the system. This is partly the result of reforms passed in 2015, which helped divert people away from incarceration and toward community supervision. Collectively, these reforms represented a positive step: For justice-involved individuals, community supervision is much less disruptive than prison; for Utahans generally, low-risk individuals can often be rehabilitated more safely and efficiently while in their communities than if they were housed in prison.
But instead of keeping people out of prison, community supervision has become a major driver of prison numbers. In 2018, 82% of prison admissions in Utah were due to probation or parole violations — representing a jump of over 15% since 2012. With the exception of Idaho, Utah’s prison population is growing faster than that of any other state.
It doesn’t have to be this way. With a few changes, community supervision can live up to its promise of serving as an effective alternative to incarceration.
The task force should start by looking into the state’s response to technical violations. These violations do not involve committing a criminal offense; rather, they stem from breaching conditions of probation or parole — being late to a meeting with one’s probation officer, for example, or missing curfew. Despite having nothing to do with criminal activity, technical violations can still result in prison time. In fact, more than half of all Utah prison admissions stem from technical violations.
Imprisoning a person is one of the most serious actions a government can take. Even a short prison term can cause significant harm — people behind bars may lose their employment, their housing and even their children. Rather than serving as an automatic response to a person struggling while on probation or parole, we should reserve incarceration for cases where public safety is truly at risk.
In recognition of this principle, lawmakers should consider changing the state’s response to technical violations. Some states have capped the length of incarceration for purely technical violations. Others have explored graduated sanctions — intermediate responses short of sending a person to prison. These are worthy solutions for the task force to explore.
But a deeper, more successful approach would reconsider the role of supervision in individuals’ lives. If supervision’s primary goal is to help people reintegrate with society so that they refrain from engaging in criminal activity — and it should be — we need to help them address the issues that led them to commit a crime in the first place — and support their efforts to change.
When a person is having a difficult time meeting supervision conditions, there are often hidden issues at root. Missing curfew may signal transportation difficulties; failing to report to a probation/parole officer meeting might be due to a lack of child care options. Supervision officers have a crucial role to play in identifying these issues and helping people overcome them. They should thus be situated not as referees tasked with calling the balls and strikes when people fail, but as coaches who listen to those under their care, ask judges for condition adjustments when appropriate, and cheer people on when they are succeeding. Providing positive reinforcements, even for small successes, is much more effective at ensuring people complete community supervision successfully than using sanctions alone.
Changing our responses to technical violations is just one piece of a larger community supervision puzzle. Gov. Herbert has already taken the first step to improving probation and parole — recognizing that there is a problem. Thoughtfully examining the issue is sure to be a time-consuming and difficult endeavor for the task force. However, given that 18,790 Utahans are currently under supervision, the potential rewards make it worth the effort.
Nila Bala is associate director of criminal justice and civil liberties at R Street and a former Baltimore public defender.