An estimated 4.5 million people (nearly 2 percent of the U.S. adult population) are currently supervised on probation, parole, or some other form of community corrections as a result of a criminal conviction. This is more than twice the number of people in prison or jail.

A probation sentence and release on parole are intended to be the appropriate response to a criminal conviction. Individuals convicted of a crime often perceive being on probation or parole as a benefit and “incarceration-avoidance.” The public often believes that such a sanction allows the person to “get off easy” or “just get a slap on the wrist.” However, volumes of data and research show that probation or parole can be as onerous on the individual as incarceration and, when done effectively, has very positive results for both the individual and the public.

When probation and parole work, an individual under supervision has a rigorous and targeted set of conditions that address the person’s substance abuse and mental health issues, require cognitive behavioral treatment designed to change a person’s thinking and decision-making, and develop educational and employment training skills that enable the person to obtain and sustain employment and stability in the community. Under these circumstances, the individual has a very low likelihood of returning to criminal behavior and the public benefits from the person becoming a taxpayer rather than a tax burden.

Yet, the current supervision system often makes it difficult for people to succeed. Reasons for failure include the lack of support needed to address behavioral health problems, unreasonable conditions at sentencing that have little to do with the person’s propensity for misconduct, being supervised by an officer who is overworked and inadequately trained, and being on supervision far longer than necessary. Too often, probationers and parolees are returned to prison for behavior that is neither criminal nor unexpected. Approximately one third of people on probation and parole return to incarceration, with more than 350,000 returning to jail or prison for violating supervision rules rather than for committing new crimes, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

After years of work focused on addressing the many challenges in the nation’s prison systems, CJI and Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project are working together on a community corrections initiative to tackle these issues. The initiative’s goal is to reduce the number of people returned to incarceration and to make periods of supervision more effective at reducing recidivism. The new project invites states to analyze their community corrections systems (through comprehensive data and system analysis) and develop evidence-based recommendations for system improvement.

Arizona and Utah partnered with CJI and Pew as the first two states, kicking off this new effort in the summer of 2019. Leaders in each state convened a task force to study their community corrections systems, review research and best practices, and engage in policy discussions. Each state’s task force met several times in person and via webinar over several months to identify challenges and opportunities and to develop actionable recommendations to strengthen community corrections systems. The Arizona and Utah task forces also met together to learn from each other and share perspectives. This collegial engagement enhanced each other’s experience by providing peer-to-peer discussion and analysis. Both groups came away impressed by the opportunity to learn from each other and expressed a desire to continue to engage in these discussions. Topics covered throughout the recommendation process included responses to violations, fines and fees, and length of stay on supervision. Each task force also discussed topics tailored to their state.

The task force in each state will release final recommendations in the coming months.