Question 10

What are the benefits and costs of probation?

by Faye S. Taxman
George Mason University (USA)

As a community-based vehicle for sanctioning offenders, probation services offer a three-fold array of benefits: to the individual offender, to the community at large, and to the justice system. For the individual offender, the person remains in the community while repaying society and the person can continue with civic responsibilities such as employment, being a family member, and being part of the community. The probationer can also become connected with community resources for substance abuse, mental health, employment services, and so on – resources that should assist the individual to resume a role as a citizen.

Probation services relies on these community resources and can contribute to building community-based organizations that meet the broader needs of the community such as behavioral health services, gang prevention and resistance efforts, housing supports, and social support networks. Community organizations, both government and non-profit, are important resources for both probation service and probationers since they assist probationers to repay society through community service work. Or the services can provide supportive services to assist probationers to avoid being part of the justice system.

The flexibility of the probation sanction (in some jurisdictions)—as either a stand-alone sentence or as a platform to add components pertinent to the factors that affect offending behavior and can expedite desistance from a life of crime—is an asset. The probationer can contribute to the community through paying fines, probation fees (in some jurisdictions), restitution, and other financial resources.

The justice system can use probation to foster goals of desistance by focusing probation conditions around factors that will allow the offender to repay society, address factors that contribute to offending, and allow the offender to obtain new skills (i.e. education, employment, parenting, etc.) to contribute to society.

The costs of probation are as diverse as the benefits. The main cost are the probation officers and staff of a probation agency and the infrastructure costs for the office. The probation personnel are cheaper than prison cells given that there is no need to pay for personnel that operated twenty-four hours a day or provide secure physical space to detain an offender. But, overloading the probation personnel with high caseloads can artificially reduce the actual costs of probation.

The higher the caseload, the more likely that probation personnel cannot employ effective practices such as risk management, or developing the ‘working alliance’ (with the probationer) to create trust and fairness, or case management and service referral, and service provision. That is, probation officers can achieve many of the goals of a sanction if they have sufficient time to address the criminogenic risk and needs of probationers.

Other related costs of probation are related to service provision to address the substance abuse, mental health, employment, educational, and other unmet needs of probationers. The cost of probation is entirely related to the size of the caseload, and the degree to which the probation officers link offenders to community based services. In some jurisdictions, these costs are sometimes offset through revenue from financial penalties such as fines, probation fees, drug testing fees, restitution, and any other court-related costs.

Probation is a penalty that can benefit the community without overextending the system in terms of resources. But the system can undermine the ability of probation by overextending the resources and by stacking conditions on probationers that intensify the sanction. Probation is elastic in terms of goals, operations, and benefits. An assessment of its costs and benefits will need to play close attention to exactly how probation is operationalized in any given context, and the articulated goals.

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