What Purpose Should Probation Serve? Looking to Other Alternatives

Ebony Ruhland
Ebony Ruhland

Many agree that probation is a good alternative to incarceration. There are several noteworthy benefits to probation: probation keeps individuals in the community and is more cost-effective compared to incarceration. With calls to decrease mass incarceration, it may make sense initially to place more individuals on probation rather than to incarcerate them. This seems like a worthy goal.

However, we must debate and wrestle with the purpose of probation prior to diverting people from prison to the community. Is the goal of probation rehabilitation? Is it to ensure public safety? Is it to deter crime? Is it all of the above and more? Examining these questions is important because the answers impact probationers, their families, and the communities they live and work in.  Research shows that probation officers and departments that emphasize a focus on law enforcement (and see public safety as the overarching goal) file more violations, including technical violations, and produce higher revocation rates compared to those who have a social casework approach.1

One Probation Officer explained:

Too many a lot of times— a lot of times— you get clients in the system, and then you get 16 different conditions. If I was on probation, I would violate every other month. They force people to get their diploma…[and] to get employment. How can you force them to get employment when they don’t have the skills and with the economy in the last couple years? Highly educated [people have a] hard time finding employment.”

Understanding the goals of probation should also matter in setting the conditions of supervision. Interviews conducted by the Robina Institute with criminal justice stakeholders in jurisdictions throughout the country revealed a belief that many conditions were ordered arbitrarily or without reason. Conditions were not individualized to individual risks and needs. This was especially true for jurisdictions with a list of general conditions that applied to all probationers regardless of their offense. See the Robina Institute’s Probation Revocation Project’s reports on jurisdictions in Bell County, Texas and Ramsey County, Minnesota, for example.

Another Probation Officer who was interviewed, said:

“Some [conditions] are cookie-cutter and that is not beneficial for everyone… [N]ot everyone needs cognitive assessment, and should not have to go to school if they are already working. Piling on more programs [can lead to a] set up for failure. Everyone shouldn’t have cookie cutter conditions.”

This generality makes it hard for probation officers and judges to enforce each condition. One judge said that he would never revoke someone for not completing their GED, and therefore questioned why he even ordered it as a standard condition. He pondered if it would be possible for the only condition to be to commit no new crimes and remain law abiding. In his mind, violating this condition was the only thing that should result in a revocation. This insight begs the question – should probationers face supervision violations (and potentially revocation) based on non-criminal conditions – for hanging out with friends who are known criminals, not getting employment, not paying fees or fines, and other such actions?

During an interview, a Probation Officer offered this opinion:

“I think there are too many [conditions] because they’re often times utilized in a sense that “this sounds good.” Like, I’m giving them all these things. When in essence, we could concentrate on a couple[of] areas, and that would probably be a better way to reduce the chance for recidivism— versus loading them all up [with numerous conditions] and then having to concentrate on making them be in compliance with their court order, [or] doing more of a checklist kind of thing. If we kind of highlighted their areas of risk, we could focus on those and it would work better than just doing the checklist.”

Examining the goals of probation is important to ensure that the right people are on probation. Probation populations are already enormous. To rehabilitate probationers and ensure public safety, probation caseloads must remain at a size that are manageable for officers.2

Understanding the goals of probation will also help determine the appropriate length of a probation term. Lengths vary widely in jurisdictions; they can range from a few months to lifetime probation sentences. Do we really want people on probation for life? If so, why? Is it because they are dangerous and a risk to public safety? And, if that is the case, is probation the correct sentence?

Another Probation Officer thinks judges should look closer at an individual’s circumstances before setting conditions:

“Standard [conditions] are very general that happen all the time…I don’t really think that the bench is really looking at what is going on with the person.”

Our sentencing options are not limited only to probation or prison. A short-term jail sentence could potentially be offered without any probation afterwards. For truly low-risk individuals, perhaps a small fine or a strong verbal warning not to commit any further offenses might be effective. Already, low-risk probationers are often put on a form of low contact probation where they must only call in monthly or report to a kiosk. Is this necessary for low risk offenders? After all, research shows that leaving low risk individuals alone is often what is best for them.3

For medium- and certain high-risk offenders there are also options beyond probation and prison. The criminal justice system has several intermediate sentencing options.4 Examples of these options include sentences to residential drug or mental health treatment, community service, or day reporting centers. Maybe we should look to those more. What would it mean to consider these alternatives?

As a society that aims to improve its criminal justice system, reduce mass incarceration, and improve public safety, we should revisit the goals and aims of probation and community supervision on a regular basis. Then, we can work to ensure that our probation policies and practices meet those goals. In doing so, we can explore the possibilities of using alternative, intermediate sanctions to meet our correctional goals.

  • 1Mario A. Paparozzi & Paul Gendreau, An Intensive Supervision Program That Worked: Service Delivery, Professional Orientation, and Organizational Supportiveness. 85 Prison J. 455 (2005).
  • 2Faith E. Lutze et al., The Future of Community Corrections is Now: Stop Dreaming and Take Action, 28 J. Contemp. Crim. Just. 42 (2012).
  • 3Christopher T. Lowenkamp & Edward J. Latessa, Understanding the Risk Principle: How and Why Correctional Interventions Can Harm Low-Risk Offenders, Topics in Community Corrections (2004), http://www.correctiveservices.justice.nsw.gov.au/Documents/Risk-principal--accessible-442577.pdf.
  • 4Norval Morris & Michael Tonry, Between Prison and Probation: Intermediate Punishment in a Rational Sentencing System (1991).


Ebony Ruhland
Associate Professor, Rutgers University Newark; Former Research Director, Robina Institute