The United States has a remarkable total of 1.7 million criminals behind bars, but that’s nothing compared with the number who are on probation (4.3 million) and parole (700,000). More people go to jail each year for violating such “community supervision” than for committing fresh crimes—and the same group also accounts for a large share of the new crimes.
In 2005, Steven Alm, a judge on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, concluded that there must be a better way. Tired of hearing probation revocation cases only after the offenders had repeatedly failed to show up for meetings and drug tests without suffering any consequences, he demanded that officers act on the first violation. But the caseload is too big for that to be feasible. In fact, the entire U.S. “community corrections” system is swamped, writes Mark A. R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA. As a result, not only do criminals on parole or probation get away with a lot, but, because of the lax supervision, they get no clear signals about what constitutes going too far—so inevitably that’s what many do, winding up in courtrooms such as Alm’s. Yet one of the most important things we know about using punishment as a deterrent, according to Kleiman, is that its severity is not nearly as important as its “swiftness and certainty.”
Knowing this, Alm picked 35 of the worst probation violators (mostly methamphetamine users) and gave them a clear warning: Miss your next drug tests and meetings with probation officers, and you’re going to jail. It worked. After a year, Alm’s group had half as many arrests as average (i.e., less troublesome) offenders, and “a third as many probation revocations and prison terms for new offenses.” And they didn’t soak up any more precious courtroom time than their better-behaved peers.
Alm’s success in changing convicts’ behavior could be the foundation for a national revolution, Kleiman argues. Pilot projects based on the Alm model have already been launched.
Two keys to success in going national are to keep the focus on the worst cases and ensure the “swiftness and certainty of . . . sanctions.” The types of monitoring could be expanded. For $5 per day, an offender on probation could be equipped with an “anklet” containing a Global Positioning System monitor. Software could compare his location to that of any reported crime; officers could monitor his movements, including appearance at work and adherence to curfews. Probation violations would result in swift punishment. Such a system holds the potential to reduce new arrests among probationers and parolees by 75 percent, Kleiman believes.
Ultimately, we could begin emptying the prisons, reserving them for violent and repeat offenders. Says Kleiman: “If we can make this work—a big ‘if’—we ought to be able to cut the crime rate and the incarceration rate in half” after a 10-year effort.