Reducing Excessive Probation Revocations
- Each year, nearly a third of those who exit probation or parole in the U.S. fail to successfully complete the terms of their supervision, with almost 350,000 individuals returning to jail or prison.
- As part of the Reducing Revocations Challenge, we partnered with the Spokane Municipal Court Probation Department (SMCP) to apply a behavioral science-driven research approach to examine the SMCP’s probation processes and outcomes.
- Through this partnership, we advised SMCP on a new model of probation. Our report, “Spokane Probation: The Challenge of Change,” takes a deeper look at the factors driving excessive probation revocations.
As the number of individuals on probation or parole in the U.S. has risen sharply over the past several decades, it has become clear that these systems, which were intended to rehabilitate and prevent individuals from being incarcerated, are instead serving as a conduit back into jails and prisons. Each year, nearly a third of those who exit probation or parole in the U.S. fail to successfully complete the terms of their supervision, with almost 350,000 individuals returning to jail or prison.
These figures highlight the urgency of transforming our current community supervision structure and point in particular to the need to reduce probation failures (revocations) that keep people cycling between probation and incarceration.
Addressing the probation-to-incarceration pipeline requires a deeper understanding of the problem, and specifically the contexts, decisions, and actions of everyone who plays a role in the system. At ideas42, we saw that examining the root causes and circumstances around probation revocations through a behavioral lens could shine a light on new opportunities to change probation systems for the better.
To do this, we joined the Reducing Revocations Challenge, a national initiative funded by Arnold Ventures that aims to reduce undesirable and costly rates of probation failures and increase the success of probation through the identification, piloting, and testing of promising strategies grounded in addressing the drivers of revocations. We partnered with the Spokane Municipal Court Probation Department (SMCP) in Spokane, Washington, to apply a behavioral science-driven research approach to examine SMCP’s probation processes and outcomes. Through this partnership, we had the opportunity to observe and advise on a change process in progress; SMCP was beginning to launch a new model of probation.
To inform ongoing change practice in Spokane and provide insights that could help other jurisdictions seeking to adopt similar changes, we focused on identifying drivers of revocations in SMCP’s former model of probation.
Multiple aspects of the former model appeared to contribute to excessive revocations:
- Probation is revoked following a new criminal law violation.
- Violations are automatically filed.
- Officers have limited tools to adapt their monitoring approach to individual clients.
- Sentencing is not tailored to risk and needs, with long default probation terms.
We zeroed in on aspects of the new model expected to address these drivers and then conducted further research to surface behavioral barriers to successfully implementing aspects of the new model. By examining the status quo of the former model and initial experiences with the new, we found several ways in which the pull of existing norms and prior practices may create challenges to achieving greater rates of probation success with the new model.
For more on our approach, see our report, Spokane Probation: The Challenge of Change.
The new model is a marked shift away from the largely administrative and compliance-focused approach that SMCP has been using since its inception. The new model:
- Makes probation a tool for rehabilitation for medium- and high-risk individuals.
- Tailors sentencing and case planning to the individual probation client.
- Requires probation officers to actively support clients to achieve basic needs (housing, sobriety, education, employment, etc.) as well as successfully complete their probation terms.
While the new model of probation was formally launched as planned in November 2019, the rollout has been slower than expected. As a result, we did not evaluate new empirical evidence to determine how SMCP’s new model of probation addresses drivers in the former model hypothesized to have been contributing to excessive revocations in Spokane. Drawing on the analysis of drivers above, however, we can examine the design of the new model to further hypothesize which aspects can mitigate those drivers, and which may be unaddressed.
For more on our results, see our report, Spokane Probation: The Challenge of Change.
Our recommendations include behaviorally-informed interventions that can be implemented throughout the probation journey to achieve better outcomes. For a deeper look into the factors driving excessive probation revocations and ways that behavioral science can support probation reform efforts, see our report, Spokane Probation: The Challenge of Change.
Interested in learning more about this work applying behavioral science to a crucial social problem? Reach out to us: firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet at @ideas42 to join the conversation.