Probation Conditions Relaxed During the Pandemic. Some Say They Should Stay That Way.
For the Los Angeles County Probation Department, the coronavirus pandemic has posed an unprecedented challenge: remotely tracking 40,286 adults, about 3,200 of whom have no fixed address. Every probation office in the county is closed, and the department is prioritizing home visits for “high-risk individuals” who are in quarantine with spouses, children, or elderly people they’ve been convicted of abusing.
Probation conditions have been relaxed out of necessity, according to Chief Deputy of Adult Services Reaver Bingham. Drug tests and mandated therapy, for example, are not required while social distancing is still recommended.
For some probationers, the lifted conditions have made life easier. Samir, 49, spent the first six weeks of his probation taking a series of buses across town to meet with his officer every other week. Now, because of the pandemic, he said, he only has to check in once a month by phone. Like the two other probationers who spoke to The Appeal for this article, Samir asked not to be identified by his real name due to fear of retaliation from the probation department.
The lighter supervision is raising questions about whether it’s necessary to return to stricter probation conditions and in-person visits after the pandemic.
Relaxing the rules during the pandemic will likely have no effect on public safety, said Jennifer Doleac, director of the Justice Tech Lab and associate professor of economics at Texas A&M University. Even before the pandemic, higher levels of community supervision have not been proven to benefit public safety.
In 2018, Doleac did a comprehensive review of recent studies on prisoner re-entry. Those studies consistently found that probationers’ and parolees’ supervision levels—the requisite number of conditions and meetings with their probation officers—had no positive effect on public safety.
“There’s this idea out there that you need to carefully calibrate the amount of supervision to the person’s risk level,” Doleac said, “but as far as I can tell, there’s no rigorous evidence showing that that’s the case, or showing that there are actually benefits to these intensive supervision levels. … It basically makes no difference.”
What does make a difference in increasing public safety, research has found, is engaging probationers as community members, rather than potential reoffenders.
“Sociologists would argue that the way to get more safety is not through just monitoring people more closely,” said Kendra Bradner, director of the Probation and Parole Reform Project at the Columbia Justice Lab. “It’s by supporting people to build stable lives that include employment, supportive relationships, reliable access to services like transportation and healthcare.”
As the magnitude of the pandemic became clear in mid-March, the Los Angeles County Probation Department required that signs be posted in every office to let clients know that contact would be “telephonic” until social distancing rules were lifted, according to Bingham.
“It’s had an impact,” Bingham said. “We can tell more about what’s going on with a person when we interact with them physically. [With social distancing], we’re not seeing people, we’re not able to look into their eyes to see what’s going on, we’re not able to read body language.”
Bingham couldn’t provide data showing how many probationers the department had lost track of in the shift from in-person to phone check-ins.
For others on low levels of supervision, the relaxed rules during the pandemic has had little effect on their probation experience.
David, 48, has been on probation since Feb. 21, weeks before the coronavirus brought Los Angeles to a standstill. But he couldn’t connect with an officer until April 14, despite multiple in-person visits and two phone calls to his assigned probation office, he said.
Louis, 31, also began probation in mid-February. Louis said he spoke to his officer on the phone three times, but had never met him in person, though offices were still open at the time. The calls were brief and little was discussed, Louis said. “Every time when [the officer] called, they just asked me, did I have police contact,” he said, “Then they give me another time period to call.”
Economic circumstances may be a factor in whether stricter, pre-pandemic probation conditions will return, Doleac said. Concerns about probation officer jobs being eliminated could keep these changes from being made permanent, she said.
Likewise, state fiscal downturns resulting from the pandemic may affect criminal justice populations, including those under community supervision.
“As revenues fall and then states and counties are forced to reduce spending, there’s a couple different ways they can do that,” said Jake Horowitz, director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts. Short-term cuts in programming for incarcerated people are one possibility, despite evidence that, in the long run, those programs reduce recidivism and save taxpayer money, Horowitz said. Or localities could reduce the number of people they incarcerate or place under community supervision. “That might be where COVID has its most pronounced impact on correctional populations,” Horowitz said.
On March 17, EXiT: Executives Transforming Probation and Parole, a national coalition of 85 community supervision officials and reformers convened by the Columbia Justice Lab, issued a series of recommendations for state and county departments to consider during the COVID-19 outbreak. These may also provide a post-pandemic blueprint for decreasing the country’s bloated community supervision population, which has increased nearly fourfold since 1980 to 4.5 million. The recommendations emphasize social distancing to protect probationers, who have higher rates of medical issues like heart conditions, diabetes, and HIV than the non-supervised population.
EXiT also urges the suspension of punishment for technical violations—a missed probation appointment or curfew, for example, which can result in reincarceration—for the duration of the pandemic, in order to minimize the number of people in jails and prisons, which are the nation’s most concentrated hot spots of coronavirus infection. A survey from the American Probation and Parole Association found that 70 percent of respondents have indeed suspended arrests for technical violations during the pandemic.
The effects of that decision could help reduce prison populations. A 2019 paper by the Council of State Governments reported that technical violations account for 25 percent of state prison admissions. Technical violations and new offenses, such as misdemeanors that wouldn’t lead to incarceration for those who are unsupervised, result in 45 percent of state prison admissions, costing states $9.3 billion per year.
“These things were good practice before, but took on new urgency in the face of the public health crisis,” Bradner said. More than half of EXiT’s members signed on to the statement, she noted, and many of them have told her that they view COVID-19 as an opportunity to advance policy reforms that may have faced resistance in the past.
“It is a time when a lot of counties or states are going to be looking very closely at their budgets, and if you’re doing things that have high costs, but you can’t tie them to a public safety outcome, then there are going to rightly be questions asked there,” Bradner said. “I think it will demand creativity—it has already demanded creativity. My hope is that some of that creativity will become the new normal.”
Co-published with The Appeal.
Lauren Lee White is a reporter covering criminal justice, public policy, and issues that affect women and families.