Anderson Economic Group Work

Incentives in State Probation Systems: Relation to Structure and Practices

The Justice Fellowship commissioned Anderson Economic Group to perform research and analysis on a variety of state probation systems and consider the incentives driving the structure and policies of those probation systems. We looked at probation agencies with different state and local structures and funding mechanisms. We asked what incentives judges, administrators and probation officers faced and what the impact of those incentives were. While we characterized the structure of probation administration in all fifty states, we made a deeper dive on eight states. We relied primarily on public statements, data, and third-party research for the analysis presented in this report due to the scarcity of other data, in particular probation agencies rarely publish recidivism rates. With this analysis we reached five major findings:

  • Many states house their probation agencies in the department of corrections, alongside prison administration. In those cases, administrators have an incentive to increase the number of offenders on probation while decreasing the amount of probation funding.
  • When state and local governments share responsibility for probation and incarceration, each has an incentive to lower their costs by offloading offenders onto the other.
  • It appears that court-run systems place greater emphasis on reforming offenders and reducing recidivism through the probation system than other agencies, but at a greater average cost.
  • Probation agencies rarely publish recidivism rates among former probationers. This casts doubt on whether agencies are rewarded by legislatures and the public for reforming offenders, which is one of the main purposes of probation.
  • Stated missions and goals of probation agencies depend more on the specific history and leadership of the state than on probation agency structure or other state characteristics.

Released in conjunction with a trio of reports from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, our report helped the Justice Fellowship navigate policy options related to probation, and helped them make the case for important policy changes to state probation and justice systems.

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