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How we can improve the probation system

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As any successful business owner can tell you, incentives matter. Allow people to experiment, to be bold, and especially to share in success, and they will work harder and smarter. 

But this simple insight has too rarely been applied to our criminal justice system. One-size-fits-all, top-down solutions remain the norm, despite their frequent failure. This is especially true when it comes to probation. When probation systems underperform, they ensnare people in a cycle of supervision, crime, and incarceration, at huge costs to taxpayers. I’ve seen this firsthand while listening to some of my employees talk about their experiences in the criminal justice system. We should support our probationers as they rebuild their lives through hard work.

Criminal justice doesn’t have to work this way. This year, the Arizona Legislature has an opportunity to adopt policies that incentivize innovation and effective rehabilitation in probation. A better probation system is good for all Arizonans — more people stay in their communities and out of prison, taxpayers save tens of millions of dollars, and less crime means that the public is safer.

Between 2008 and 2017, Arizona probation departments safely reduced revocations by 31% at the same time that the state’s crime rate fell by more than a quarter. But the improvements that our probation system experienced over the past decade have all but petered out. Revocations to prison spiked by 11% in 2018 and then stagnated in 2019. And in 2020, Covid disrupted the operations of probation departments across the country, the full effects of which will not be fully understood for years to come.

The scale of the probation problem is massive. In 2019, nearly 3,000 people were revoked to prison from probation, accounting for 15% of prison admissions, at a cost of more than $100 million per year. Despite the steep costs, most of these revocations aren’t making communities safer. While some of these revocations are for new crimes, many are for so-called technical violations, which can be as benign as having a sip of beer at a barbeque. It’s time for change.

Steve Kaiser

Steve Kaiser

By introducing HB2707, my colleagues in the Arizona Legislature and I are taking decisive action to turn this deteriorating situation around. But we need not look any further than our state’s past success to find solutions. The Safe Communities Act of 2008, which empowered county probation departments to make the commendable reductions in probation revocations between 2008 and 2017, contained a provision meant to incentivize probation departments to improve outcomes. This so-called “performance incentive funding program” was supposed to reward county probation departments with a 50% share of the state’s saved prison costs if they reduced probation failure rates. Despite impressive reductions in the following years, the counties never received the funding that they were promised by the Legislature and the provision was later repealed. 

Legislators should revive this program. It’s simple – direct additional funding to county probation departments that succeed. Departments can use these reward funds to address their local needs and experiment with innovative strategies, driving even better outcomes. Departments could expand rehabilitation programs, purchase technology and replace outdated equipment, contract with online social workers to help manage caseloads, and give bonuses to hardworking officers out in the field.

Incentive-based policies have seen enormous success in other states. California’s performance-based probation reform led 53 out of 58 counties to reduce revocations by an average of 23%, saving California taxpayers over $1 billion in prison costs. Texas probation departments achieved similar results after their state adopted a voluntary incentive system. Departments that opted in had 13.4% fewer revocations, while those that opted out saw revocations rise by 5.9%.

The evidence is clear — incentives can jumpstart Arizona’s stagnant probation system and drive better outcomes for decades to come. By passing HB2707, the Arizona House of Representatives took a decisive step toward reviving a great policy that never should have been abandoned. Now, it’s the Senate’s turn to pass this bill and finally tell probation departments, “promises made, promises kept.”

Steve Kaiser, a Phoenix Republican, represents Legislative District 15 in the Arizona House of Representatives.

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