A Criminal Enterprise

On Probation in New York: The Best or Worst of Times?

Posted in Uncategorized by Robert Smith on September 8, 2009

“Probation officers are long arms of the law” is the title of this interesting article in today’s Lower Hudson Valley News Journal. The article re-conceptualizes probation as a comprehensive, cost-effective and recidivism-reducing sanction (rather than “a slap on the wrist” for those lucky enough to avoid prison).  Here are the highlights:

People get probation when judges deem they do not pose a serious risk of reoffending. Some of the most serious offenders have committed sex crimes, and they are monitored by specially trained probation officers who enforce some 30 special restrictions on their behavior.

Probation officers typically track people for three years for misdemeanor cases, five years for felony cases and up to 10 years for sex crimes – far longer than convicts would be supervised if they went to prison.

Not only does probation track offenders longer than if they went to prison, it saves taxpayers money. A prisoner costs $35,000 to $40,000 a year; monitoring a probationer costs $4,000 to $5,000 a year, according to state statistics. “It’s probably the best tool we have to prevent recidivism,” Bartlett said. “For people who are serious about not reoffending, it’s a great opportunity. It’s the best bang for our dollar.”

Some offenders see their probation officers nine times a month, including office visits, home visits, and visits to where they work or receive treatment. They also have to undergo drug testing and show pay stubs or proof that they are trying to get work. As their probation continues, they see their probation officer less often. Andrews, a 60-year-old Spring Valley resident, is one of 3,100 probation officers in New York state keeping track of 125,000 adults on probation, half of them felons. She spends her week juggling office visits, paperwork and phone calls to treatment centers, social programs and other agencies that help her probationers. She also makes surprise home visits, especially with the 18- to 25-year-olds. “One young man said, ‘Oh, Ms. Andrews, I didn’t know you make home visits!’ I told him, ‘You never know when I’m watching you.’

Drunken driving and drug-related offenses are the most common probation convictions – 26,000 cases in each category statewide In Putnam County, about half of the 600 probation cases are for drunken driving, said probation director Gene Funicelli. The key to drunken driving probation, Funicelli said, is to make sure the probationers stay away from alcohol. They can’t go to bars or have alcohol in their homes, because that violates the conditions of their probation. To make sure they’re following the rules, Putnam’s probation officers don’t hesitate to pay a visit or call their friends and family, Funicelli said. “We don’t go on the honor system,” he said, “We go to their work. We go to their house. We do a lot of field work.” In Westchester, Andrews makes sure her probationers attend court-ordered drug- or alcohol-treatment programs, get jobs, enroll in parenting classes and any other services that can help them.

Though the reality of the parole system might be far less shiny (i.e.  too high a case to parole officer ratio prevents proper monitoring, technology malfunctions, etc.), a careful look out how to expand probation (rather than prison) for some classes of offenders (especially for drug offenses) makes good sense in light of current economic distress and the embarrassing 1/100 behind bars epidemic.

Over at the sentencing law and policy blog, Doug Berman recently asked readers for comments on probation in high-profile cases like Chris Brown’s five-year probation term for domestic-violence. He also champions tougher sentences for drunk drivers (though he mentions a general preference for alternatives to incarceration). Suppose the existence of empirical proof that probation reduces recidivism for drunk driving or domestic abuse more than the standard prison sentence, would people like Professor Berman or organizations like MADD support a wide-spread shift towards probation? Or is there a “just desserts” need that  is not met by non-incarceration sentences?

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