Want to protect lives, reduce COVID and save money? Reform probation

Saturday, September 5, 2020

By Sydney Kamlager-Dove and Van Jones for the OC Register

California has been reeling this summer – battered by public unrest over abuses in the criminal justice system and the nation’s highest number of COVID-19 infections.

Fortunately, California just passed legislation that will address both issues by fixing the worst parts of the state’s probation system.

Most Californians don’t think about probation very much or very often. But probation is a massive surveillance system that functions like a spider’s web of Catch 22s – often undermining people’s best efforts to turn their lives around. Because it is so byzantine and punitive, it needlessly traps tens of thousands of Californians in the corrections system for the pettiest of misdeeds or even honest mistakes.

  • Cristopher Lalos violated his probation for going to his mother’s house, where his cousin, also on probation, lived.
  • Ulysses Rodriguez had his probation extended because he could not complete his final 12 hours of community service, helping to clean a beach, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Cruz Membrano, an Army veteran, violated probation for not keeping his probation officer advised of his permanent address after losing temporary housing and resorting to living on the streets.

Supervision systems were designed to support people and connect them to essential community services to facilitate success. But California’s system does the opposite by increasing the likelihood of reincarceration.

Nearly one-quarter of California’s prison population is behind bars for violating the terms of their probation or parole, costing the state $2 billion annually, according to analysis by the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments. Part of that expense is $235 million to incarcerate people for victimless, technical violations, such as breaking curfew or missing an appointment with a supervision officer.

The public safety benefits of reform multiply during the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the difficulties of physical distancing within jails and prisons, we must ensure that we are not locking up anyone who does not need to be in jail for the sake of everyone.

Probation officers are woefully overburdened in California, with many of them juggling overwhelming numbers of cases, short-changing people on probation and generating adverse public safety impacts. Reducing the burden on probation officers would enable them to identify specific needs in each case and elicit more meaningful and measurable progress toward rehabilitation.

With California facing significant budget cuts, reform legislation would free up space for probation departments to allocate more resources to anti-recidivism programs, mental health and drug treatment and other essential services.

California’s probation system also disproportionately hurts Black people, who make up 8 percent of the state’s general population but 23 percent of people on probation.

Assembly Bill 1950 will reform California’s probation system. It limits adult terms to a maximum of one year for misdemeanor offenses and two years for felony offenses. This legislation would minimize unnecessary interaction between law enforcement and Californians. It will reduce the spread of COVID-19, cut spending and make our communities safer.

AB1950 caps probation periods for certain offenses, making probation more effective and thereby strengthening reentry and cutting recidivism. Lowering probation periods for misdemeanors will enable California to reinvest savings into mental health treatment and other critical support services needed by people returning to communities after incarceration.

Opponents are afraid that reduced probation terms will result in reduced funding for probation departments. But limiting terms should not limit a department’s ability to support people on probation with programming and accountability.