Community Corrections

Leanne Fiftal Alarid. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. 2009. Sage Publications.

Out of the nearly 7 million people currently on correctional supervision in the United States, only 30% of them are incarcerated in jail or prison. The remaining 70% of persons who have had contact with the criminal justice system are supervised within the community (Alarid, Cromwell, & del Carmen, 2008). This entry discusses community corrections, which is defined as a court-ordered sanction in which offenders serve at least some of their sentence in the community.

Three assumptions rest behind the idea of community corrections. First, most people who break the law are not dangerous or violent. The vast majority of offenders have violated a law that requires that they be held responsible through some sort of injunction or punishment, but most do not need to be locked away from the community. Keeping the offender in the community can be effective if the offender is able to maintain employment obligations and family relationships and to attempt to repair harm he or she caused the community or an identified victim—all of this at a reduced cost to taxpayers.

Second, a community sentence seeks to treat behaviors that are directly related to why the offender got into trouble in the first place, so that the risk of future reoffending is significantly reduced. The assumption here is that treatment programs are more numerous and accessible in the community than in jail and prison. This makes it easier for offenders to get the help they need while in the community and subsidize the cost with their own funds. A final assumption is that people who have been incarcerated in jail and prison transition better when they are released with some supervision than without any supervision (Petersilia, 2001).

Understanding the concept of community corrections will be accomplished through a discussion of five main areas:

  • Goals of a community sentence
  • Types of community corrections programs
  • Advantages and disadvantages of community corrections programs
  • Cost of community corrections programs
  • Do community corrections programs work?

Goals of a Community Sentence

Community corrections programs attempt to accomplish many goals. These goals include easing institutional crowding and cost; preventing future criminal behavior through surveillance, rehabilitation, and community reintegration; and addressing victims’ needs through restorative justice. Each of these goals is discussed below.

Easing Institutional Crowding and Cost

Two things are abundantly clear. First, building jails and prisons is a costly endeavor. Second, there are legal limits that define how many prisoners a single correctional institution can hold. Correctional institutions that exceed their capacity may incur civil lawsuits and fines. Therefore, one goal of community corrections programs is to ease institutional crowding in jails and prisons by drawing from the population of convicted offenders who are predicted to be less risky to the outside community. Given that there are far fewer beds available than the number of people arrested, community corrections programs control crowding by separating out the people who need to be in jail from the people who pose less risk (Harris, 1999).

Another way of controlling prison populations historically has been to allow prisoners who have served the minimum amount of time on their sentence the opportunity for early release on parole. Parole is the privileged and discretionary release from prison on community supervision until the remaining time on one’s sentence has expired. Parole has thus been used to make room for incoming prisoners.

Surveillance

Safety of the public is an important concern for any offender supervision program. To maintain public safety, offenders under supervision should be assessed to determine the degree of risk posed by their participation in community programs. Offenders who pose a serious danger to society or to themselves should not be in a community corrections program. Instead, these offenders should be incarcerated in jail or prison until they are no longer dangerous to themselves or others. For those on community supervision, compliance with court-ordered sanctions is carefully monitored by trained community officers. Finally, violations of supervised conditions are taken seriously for those who cannot or will not comply with the conditions.

Addressing Problems Related to Criminal Behavior

Correcting some of the problems that are directly linked to criminal behavior and continued involvement in the criminal justice system is another goal. Some of these problems include drug or alcohol addiction, lack of emotional control, inadequate education or vocational training, parenting problems, and mental illness or developmental disability (Alarid & Reichel, 2008). The offender attends classes to address these issues while on supervision with greater access to treatment programs than the individual would have had in jail or prison. The basis of effective rehabilitation is the use of cognitive-behavioral techniques and selecting offenders who have the desire to change.

Community Reentry

Community reintegration is an important goal for offenders released from jail or prison to gradually ease their reentry into society. Community-based correctional programs help in this endeavor with a minimal level of supervision while simultaneously allowing the offender to assume responsibilities and parental roles. In this way, getting released from prison is not such a culture shock, and this will hopefully decrease the probability of recidivism (Austin, 2001).

Restorative Justice

Restorative justice assumes that a crime harms the community and that sometimes there are individual victims involved. Often, victims of property crimes just want to be paid back or have things restored to their former condition—something that may not be possible if the offender goes to jail or prison. Restorative justice emphasizes offender responsibility to repair the injustice that offenders have caused their victims. Through victim and community involvement, such as face-to-face mediation sessions, victim impact panels, and volunteer mentoring, the offender remains in the community, completes community service, and pays victim restitution. Restorative justice is most effective for property crimes, particularly those committed by juveniles or first-time adult felony offenders (Bazemore & Stinchcomb, 2004).

Community-based programs are available at three decision points in the criminal justice process: at pretrial release before a defendant is convicted, after an offender is sentenced as an alternative to incarceration, and as an aid in reentering the community following a prison sentence (Alarid et al., 2008). Within these decision points, a wide variety of community programs are available, including residential halfway houses; nonresidential options such as probation, parole, and electronic monitoring; and economic sanctions such as restitution, fines, and forfeitures.

Community Corrections Programs Before Conviction

After the police arrest a suspect, the prosecutor’s office decides whether to charge the suspect with a crime. If the prosecutor decides not to charge for lack of evidence, the suspect is automatically released. If the suspect will be charged with a crime, he or she becomes a “pretrial defendant” and appears before a judge to determine whether the defendant is eligible for release from jail. Although most defendants are released on their own recognizance with the promise to appear at their next court date, some defendants must be released on pretrial supervision, which is a form of correctional supervision of a defendant who has not yet been convicted.

Pretrial Supervision

The pretrial release decision is one of the first decisions judges make following an arrest so that some defendants can be released with supervision prior to their next court date. Pretrial release allows defendants who have not yet been convicted the opportunity to live and work as productive citizens until their next scheduled court date. Defendants can support their families and assist their attorneys in case preparation. In turn, the courts can be assured that the defendant will be more likely to appear. Pretrial supervision involves compliance with court-ordered conditions for a specified time period. Examples of court-ordered conditions include calling in or reporting for appointments, obtaining a substance abuse or mental health evaluation, maintaining employment, and avoiding contact with victims. The court can issue a warning, or modify or add more conditions for noncompliance. Continued noncompliance or committing a new crime can result in the court removing the defendant from pretrial supervision and incarcerating him or her in jail until the case has been processed.

Another form of community supervision without a conviction is diversion. Defendants are technically not convicted—rather, they enter into an agreement with the court to complete various conditions of probation, with the understanding that successfully completing these conditions will result in having the charges completely dismissed without a conviction. If a defendant does not succeed or commits a new crime during supervision, the courts will change the paperwork so that the defendant’s conviction will become a permanent part of the record (Ulrich, 2002). Forms of pretrial supervision and diversion may include house arrest and electronic monitoring.

Electronic Monitoring and House Arrest

Electronic monitoring (EM) is a technology used to aid in the community-based supervision either before or after conviction. Monitoring electronically has a variety of levels, ranging from a basic unsophisticated phone line system that monitors offenders very infrequently to a continuous Global Positioning System (GPS) that can pinpoint the offender’s exact location at all times.

House arrest requires a defendant to remain at his or her residence for a portion of the day. House arrest is often used in conjunction with electronic monitoring because the technology can enforce the curfew conditions, which can range from nighttime hours through any nonworking hours. This practice is also known as home confinement, which refers to the same program for convicted offenders.

The rest of this section will be devoted to discussing the various types of electronic monitoring, beginning with the earliest phone line systems. All monitoring devices consist of a transmitter that is attached to the offender’s ankle, a receiver, and a pager. The less sophisticated versions have a transmitter that emits a continuous signal up to a 500-foot radius, and the signal is picked up by a receiver, usually attached to the offender’s home telephone. The receiver is programmed to expect the transmitter’s signal during those hours of the day that the offender is supposed to be at home. If the signal is not received when it should be, a computer sends a report of the violation to a central computer. These systems are not able to track offenders’ whereabouts once they leave home. Given the drawbacks with the early systems and the increased need to track offenders away from home, a variety of other means of offender tracking have become available, including remote monitoring and global positioning satellite devices (Greek, 2002).

Remote location monitoring systems provide offenders with a special pager that can only receive incoming calls from the probation officer. When the pager beeps, the offender must call a central number within a designated period of time (e.g., 15 minutes). Voice verification ensures a positive match between the voice template and the voice on the phone. The computer records whether or not the voice matched and the phone number where the call originated. Some remote location monitors that offenders carry emit signals that may be intercepted only by the probation officers who carry the matching portable receiving unit. This enables officers to drive by a residence or workplace without the offender’s knowledge to verify his or her whereabouts.

When the military allowed Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to be available for civilian use, it became the tracking method of choice for offenders that posed a higher risk to public safety. Offenders carry a transmitter that picks up the offender’s location via satellite and a receiver that records and transmits data via a phone and a computer. This allows law enforcement to know an offender’s whereabouts at all times (Greek, 2002).

Types of Community Corrections Programs at the Sentencing Decision

Probation Supervision

Probation supervision is the most frequently used community sentence for convicted offenders. Probation is defined as the community supervision of an offender under court-imposed conditions for a specified time period during which the court can modify conditions for noncompliance. Probation is credited to Boston shoemaker John Augustus, who devoted his life to helping offenders who had been arrested. Beginning in 1841, using his own money, Augustus assured the court that the defendant would return if the court released the defendant to his care. Probation became a formalized practice in 1878, three decades after Augustus began his work. By 1900, probation spread to other states as a discretionary sentence for persons charged with any level of offense (Panzarella, 2002).

Probation continues to serve as the primary sanction for criminal offenders. Nearly 60% (4 million) of the almost 7 million adults currently under correctional supervision are on probation.

The duties of probation officers have changed very little since the practice began. Probation officers are involved in information gathering for the court to determine the offender’s suitability for probation. The probation officer monitors the whereabouts of the probationer and ensures that the conditions of probation are being followed. Officers have a predefined number of times they must contact offenders that they supervise; contacts consist of face-to-face meetings, telephone calls, and home visits. The officer refers offenders out to specialists who provide individual and group counseling to clients in areas such as drug and alcohol education, relapse prevention, and parenting education (Czuchry, Sia, & Dansereau, 2006).

Probation supervision includes standard conditions that every probationer agrees to abide by in return for remaining at liberty in the community. These conditions include full-time employment or attendance at school, obtaining permission before leaving the jurisdiction, submitting to searches without a warrant, avoiding association with persons having a criminal record, meeting with the probation officer on a regular basis, and paying monthly supervision fees. In addition, other more special conditions are ordered that relate directly to the crime or an identified victim. The offender may be required to repay the victim a specified sum of money or to perform a certain number of community service hours. The offender may also be required to pay for and participate in counseling, substance abuse treatment, or parenting classes.

Individuals on probation supervision serve 1 to 3 years, with an average of 2 years. An estimated 8 out of 10 people on probation successfully complete the supervision without any trouble. The remaining 2 people who do not complete their original probation sentence have either committed a new criminal act or have repeatedly failed to abide by multiple conditions of probation. When this happens, probation officers report the infractions to the judge. The judge makes the final decision, choosing either to modify existing probation conditions while the offender remains in the community or to revoke probation completely, which means that the offender is resentenced to jail or prison (Gray, Fields, & Maxwell, 2001).

Day Reporting Centers

Day reporting centers are a more intensive form of community supervision that occurs simultaneously with probation. Whereas probationers on regular supervision may be required to check in monthly or only every 3 months, day reporting centers require probationers to visit a specific center 3 to 6 days each week for an average duration of 5 months. Some visits may be merely checking in, and other visits require participation in classes or outpatient treatment. Day reporting centers aim to provide offenders with access to treatment or services, and they typically supervise offenders who have previously violated probation conditions, such as those who continue to abuse drugs. Therefore, day reporting centers serve as a sanction between probation and jail (Bahn & Davis, 1998).

Day reporting centers operate on a behavior modification model of levels or phases, with the beginning phase being the strictest, with the least amount of freedom. For example, offenders are tested for drug use at random, five times each month during the most intensive phase. As offenders successfully work the program, the freedom gradually increases and the supervision decreases. Day reporting centers also have partnerships with local businesses and treatment facilities to provide numerous on-site services to address employment, education, and counseling.

Community Drug Treatment Programs

For offenders who have problems with drugs or alcohol, community-based treatment programs offer meetings between 1 and 3 times per week for a designated period of time while the offenders live and work independently. It is estimated that drug or alcohol use or abuse affects about 7 out of 10 people who get into legal trouble. Outpatient treatment may be used during transition from inpatient drug treatment, transition from prison, or solely as a part of probation conditions. Several options are available depending on the extent of the problem. Some programs are tailored to chronic abusers, while others are for occasional users (Alarid & Reichel, 2008).

Outpatient treatment for more chronic abusers typically includes a combination of medication and counseling. Some medication is designed to react negatively with alcohol, creating severe nausea and vomiting whenever alcohol is ingested. Other medications ease the discomfort of withdrawal from substances like heroin and cocaine (similar to the way nicotine patches and gum work to help people stop smoking cigarettes). Forms of therapy include relapse prevention that continues to enforce sobriety and ways of dealing with cravings and stress, and Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous, based on a support system of recovery using a designated sponsor within a 12-step program. A third method includes involving the family as a social support system in the defendant’s drug treatment. Often, family members are not aware of how they subtly contribute to their loved one’s habit or how they neglect to provide healthy outlets for sobriety.

Community Service

Community service is a court-ordered requirement that offenders labor in unpaid work for the general good of the community. The appeal of community service is that it benefits the community through the offender’s expenditure of time and effort in less-than-desirable jobs. Community service dates back to the Middle Ages when small towns in Germany allowed offenders to clean the town canal and pick up refuse for an unpaid fine. Community service was first used in the United States in the mid-1960s as punishment for juvenile delinquents, traffic offenders, white-collar criminals, and substance-abusing celebrities. Community service may be used in a variety of ways, such as with diversion or with probation. It provides an alternative sanction for poor offenders who are unable to afford monetary sanctions and is also appropriate for wealthy persons whose financial resources are so great that monetary restitution has no punitive effect.

Faith-based organizations, homeless shelters, and other nonprofit organizations have benefited from the community service labor. Offenders must labor between 40 and 1,000 hours before their service is considered complete. Community service ironically remains an underused sanction. Nationwide, only 1 out of 4 felons on probation is required to perform community service hours. Among the reasons behind this underutilization are the lack of coordination with documenting the hours, the difficulty of enforcing compliance during the work, and the need to provide evidence of completion for the court.

Restitution

Restitution is court-ordered payment that an offender makes to the victim to offset some of the losses incurred from the crime. Victim compensation for harm caused is one of the oldest principles of justice, dating back to the Old Testament and to other early legal codes. Restitution is an essential means of repaying the victim and is a step toward offender rehabilitation (Ruback & Bergstrom, 2006).

In the past, restitution payments were cancelled if offenders went to prison. As a result of the victims’ rights movement in the 1980s, victims demanded that offenders pay restitution and back child support regardless of their sentence. Restitution is now mandatory in some states for violent crimes such as sexual abuse, domestic violence, and property offenses. However, there are still areas of the country that do not require prisoners to pay restitution if incarcerated, paroled, or released from probation.

The other problem with restitution is its lack of enforcement, leading to low collection rates. Collection of restitution is enforced by probation and parole officers who collect the payment. The court mandates it as a condition of a sentence, but collection rates are surprisingly low. One reason for this is that offenders tend to be employed in lowpaying jobs and have other financial obligations such as monthly probation fees and treatment costs. These obligations seem to take precedence over restitution, which is of lower priority. Research shows that offenders who were most likely to make full payments were the ones who were employed or had strong ties to their community.

One method of increasing compliance rates is to get the victim actively involved. Victims who attended offender mediation sessions were significantly more likely to receive full restitution payments from youthful offenders than were victims who were uninvolved. A second method of increasing compliance rates is the use of restitution centers—residential facilities that aid in restitution payment collection while an offender resides there (Outlaw & Ruback, 1999).

Fines

A fine is a fixed amount imposed by the judge, defined by the severity of the crime. In the United States, fines are typically used for traffic offenses, misdemeanors, and ordinance violations, where the average fine is $100. Because traffic and misdemeanor violations are so numerous throughout the United States, fines are actually the most frequently used sanction of all. Fines are used more frequently in smaller jurisdictions than in larger urban counties.

If fines are used for felony crimes that are punishable by one year or more in prison, fines are typically in addition to probation or parole. An average fine for a felony case is $1,000 and could go as high as $10,000. The only exception here is organizational or corporate defendants involved in corporate crime. Fines amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars are routinely used in lieu of imprisonment for the vast majority of white-collar crimes. In other countries, fines are used for a wider variety of street crimes as standalone punishments—meaning a fine is used as a substitute for incarceration (Ruback & Bergstrom, 2006).

Correctional Boot Camps

Correctional boot camps are modeled after the military and target first-time felony offenders between the ages of 17 and 24. These young adults have committed a crime for which going to prison for 1 year or more was a possibility, and boot camp offers them an alternative chance to spend 90 to 180 days in an intense situation before being transferred out to community supervision. The programs use the military’s philosophy of breaking down and rebuilding one’s character, physical conditioning, labor, and drills to transform an offender into a responsible adult and hopefully to deter them from future law-breaking behavior (Wilson, MacKenzie, & Mitchell, 2005). Work assignments involve clearing land, digging ditches, or draining swamps in addition to facility maintenance and cleaning. Some boot camps involve inmates in projects benefiting the community such as cutting firewood for elderly citizens or separating recyclables. In addition, treatment and educational components enhance the needs of this young population.

Correctional boot camps began in 1983, and within a decade, over 7,000 offenders were in these programs in 30 states. Program participants often showed short-term positive attitude change, increased self-respect, and improved selfconfidence after release. But it seemed that the positive attitudes were not sustained for the long term, and the recidivism rates were no different from comparison groups who had not been to boot camp. These were also the most expensive community corrections programs to operate because of the skills and abilities needed for drill instructors to work with each platoon. Over the last 10 years, boot camp programs have decreased in number or completely closed due to a high cost with negligible long-term benefits (Bottcher & Ezell, 2005).

Types of Community Correction Programs at Reentry

Community corrections programs assist offenders in community reentry after they have spent time in prison. Two of them are discussed here: a pre-release facility and parole.

Pre-Release Facility

A pre-release program is a minimum-security residential facility where offenders can live and work and be closely supervised by authorities. Pre-release facilities are also known as community centers, halfway houses, and residential community correction facilities. A 6to 12-month stay in a halfway house allows time for offenders to gradually adjust to freedom, obtain employment, and save money for independent living on parole. Pre-release facilities provide access to various community services that can help offenders with drug and alcohol dependency, job interviewing, or budgeting. Through a semistructured environment, prerelease facilities allow offenders temporary passes to leave the facility for a variety of reasons, including to reestablish family relationships; find affordable housing; secure employment; obtain a bus pass, identification, eyeglasses, or medication; and reconnect with other social service and community agencies. Residents are often expected to pay for treatment services and subsidize their living expenses with money earned from their job. The goal of pre-release facilities is for the offender to receive parole or some form of post-release supervision (Alarid & Reichel, 2008).

Parole and Post-Release Supervision

Parole is defined as the discretionary release of an offender by a parole board of 3-12 people before the expiration of his or her sentence. In deciding whom to release, the parole board considers factors such as the offender’s conduct and participation in rehabilitative programs while in prison, the offender’s attitude toward the crime, whether there is a solid release plan (housing, work, etc.), the reaction of the victim to the offender’s release, and the need to provide space in the prison to receive newly sentenced prisoners (Petersilia, 2001).

A second form of supervision is called mandatory release, which is an automatic release to the community when a prisoner has completed a certain percentage of his or her sentence. While a parole board decides whom to release and who will stay in prison longer, mandatory release follows the law established by legislators in each state. Supervised mandatory release is used in states where parole boards have been abolished or where the parole board has limited powers with certain violent crimes. The rate of mandatory releases now outpaces discretionary releases (Petersilia, 2001).

Both forms of supervision involve conditions such as requiring the parolee to report to the parole officer; to get permission to move, change jobs, or leave the area; prohibition from having weapons; and so forth. Many parole or post-release conditions are similar to probation conditions discussed in a previous section. There is also the same possibility of revocation should the offender violate any conditions or commit a new crime. In the supervision of parolees, parole officers perform tasks similar to those done by probation officers. The two positions are enough alike that in the federal system and in most states, probation and parole departments are combined.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Community Corrections Programs

Community corrections programs offer some distinct advantages. The first is a cost issue. Compared to jail and prison, most community programs cost less. Offenders live at home, and in the small number of residential programs where the offender lives at the facility, they help subsidize the cost of living. In addition, offenders who remain in the community can continue financially supporting themselves and their family through receiving wages and paying taxes. They are also more likely than incarcerated offenders to compensate their victim through restitution and to complete community service (Petersilia, 2001).

Second, community programs can ease jail and prison crowding by allowing convicted offenders the chance to complete a drug program, boot camp, or other corrections program, and are thus another form of cost savings.

A third aspect to community corrections is the flexibility of the programs in that they can be used at many points in the criminal justice process. Community punishments limit the freedoms of convicted offenders and mandate treatment. They can also be used as a pretrial release option and as a diversion to avoiding a conviction altogether. Community supervision also aids in the reentry process after a period of incarceration.

Finally, community corrections programs avoid exposing offenders to jail and prison conditions that may be unsafe and at times even violent. Some people might be helped more in other ways. For example, community sentences can be beneficial for those needing medical attention, such as terminally ill, physically disabled, or elderly offenders, who may be better suited for a sentence within their own residence. Other offenders such as developmentally disabled or mentally ill individuals experience higher rates of victimization in prison and may be appropriately placed and treated elsewhere. An institutional environment is not for everyone, and may cause more harm than good (Alarid et al., 2008).

Disadvantages

Perhaps the most prominent advantage of community corrections can also be its greatest disadvantage. As previously mentioned, drug programs and boot camps might ease crowding by placing prison-bound offenders in a program that allows them the chance to avoid incarceration, but such programs might also be filled with offenders who actually should have received a less severe sentence. This is a situation known as net widening, and it happens when judges and prosecutors fill the program spaces with offenders who do not necessarily require such a high level of care or intervention rather than the ones the program was actually designed for. Not only are prison-bound offenders not getting their chance to be placed in appropriate programs and have access to services, but the cost of punishment actually increases. Officials often feel they must maximize program capacity because it is there (Alarid et al., 2008).

Another disadvantage is that public safety may be compromised. Offenders are more easily able to continue criminal behavior than if they were confined in jail or prison. With funding going to jails and prisons, resources have not kept pace with community corrections growth. With resources spread so thinly, officers now supervise more offenders and are able to spend less time on each person. Technology is slowly replacing human supervision. However, even when home confinement is combined with electronic monitoring technology, authorities cannot be completely assured that offenders will refrain from criminal activity. For example, being that home confinement programs allow offenders to leave their residences for activities such as work and shopping, it is possible that crimes can be committed even when offenders are legitimately away from home.

Many community supervision programs are disconnected from the various treatment services that exist to address the multitude of problems offenders face. This becomes a disadvantage to an offender’s success when treatment attendance is lacking because of transportation problems and inability to miss work. Programs like day reporting centers that comprehensively address drug abuse, job training, employment, physical or sexual victimization, parenting education, and anger management all in one location tend to have higher completion rates (Bahn & Davis, 1998).

Daily Cost of Community Corrections Programs

A grand total of $62 billion is spent on the punishment and treatment of 7 million offenders every year. Jails and prisons are the most expensive forms of punishment, costing between $50 and $100 per day per person depending on the level of custody and the region of the country (Alarid & Reichel, 2008). Jails and prisons also consume most of the correctional budget. Very little, if any, of that cost is subsidized by the offender.

Most community corrections programs are subsidized in part by the offender and thus are considered more costeffective. Starting with a base cost for probation supervision at $1 per day for low supervision, probation can range up to $15 per day per person for intense probation supervision. In each case, the offender pays for about 10% of the cost. Pretrial supervision costs are generally lower than probation. Day reporting centers also vary widely, from $10 to $100 per day per person.

Other programs such as electronic monitoring require that additional staff be hired to supervise the technological devices, at an estimated cost of $4 to $20 per day, depending on the amount the offender pays. Typical home-based electronic monitoring supervision costs the offender nearly $10 per day, and GPS monitoring is about $16 per day (Alarid et al., 2008).

Residential community correction programs are significantly higher. A prerelease program may cost $45 to $60 per day, but one third of that cost is subsidized by the offender. A correctional boot camp is by far the most expensive option, costing more than jail or prison, with no financial support from the offender. As a result, the number of correctional boot camps has declined over the years because the benefits were not outweighing the high costs.

Do Community Corrections Programs Work?

In the 1970s, sentencing disparity drew attention in the courts and from the parole boards. People were concerned with the fact that some offenders served significantly longer periods of time than others for the same crime. Community treatment programs were also criticized for not being able to do much about preventing future criminal activity while offenders were under supervision. Studies concluded that some strategies worked and other programs did not significantly reduce crime. The lack of confidence in correctional programming sparked a national debate about the efficacy of rehabilitation and influenced treatment offerings within all community-based programs. One positive outcome of this was the increased attention paid to the different types of offenders and situations in which certain treatment modalities will perform better.

Today, with more sophisticated computer technology and statistical tests available, there are more rigorous tests to determine what does and does not work in terms of both treatment and supervision strategies. The most common way of measuring program effectiveness is to determine whether or not offenders return to criminal behavior. This is better known as recidivism and is measured by rearrest, reconviction, or another term of incarceration. Recidivism should be measured during the period of supervision and after supervision ends, for a period of 1 to 5 years. Other outcome data that could be used to measure effectiveness might be specific components unique to that program, such as the collection rate for fines and restitution, the percentage of offenders who remain employed or in school, the number of GED certificates or high school diplomas awarded, and the number of community service hours performed. Since one of the goals mentioned previously is to ease crowding, effectiveness could be measured based on cost savings or whether a new jail or prison had to be built to accommodate the overflow.

To properly evaluate a program, a “treatment” group of offenders could be selected at random to participate in a program, and a “control” group would consist of the offenders who are sentenced to a form of regular probation supervision. However, the political nature of elected judges and appointed prosecutors rarely permits this type of evaluation to occur. Furthermore, many sentencing laws mandate a certain form of punishment for certain crimes, so random selection may be illegal in some cases. The following is a summary list of principles of effectiveness from various community corrections programs (Bottcher & Ezell, 2005; Deschenes, Turner, & Petersilia, 1995; Fischer, 2003; Padgett, Bales, & Blomberg, 2006; Wilson et al., 2005):

  • Offenders who are in day reporting centers, boot camps, and halfway houses have more complex problems and a higher risk of recidivism than typical probationers. As a result, offenders in residential facilities are more likely to receive a wider variety of treatment and counseling services than are offenders on traditional probation or parole.
  • Surveillance alone will not reduce recidivism. Regardless of the level of supervision or type of community corrections program, offenders need to be participating simultaneously in treatment programs while under supervision.
  • The closer the supervision, the more likely the officer will catch the offender in some sort of a rule violation. Treatment options, as opposed to punitive options, are recommended for offenders who violate supervision regulations.
  • Community programs that were the most effective tended to be longer in duration, offered treatment during the program, offered convenience to treatment services all in one location, and intertwined an aftercare program that gradually tapered off the supervision over a period of 2 years.
  • Programs that have high completion rates are probation and electronic monitoring programs where the supervision term is for less than one year.
  • Correctional boot camp participants overall had no difference in recidivism rates from groups of probationers and parolees. Although there may be some studies showing a small difference—particularly those programs with treatment programs—the overall effect is no different in terms of reducing crime in the future.
  • Paying fines and restitution has little effect on recidivism.

Conclusion

Few studies have compared offenders sentenced to jail or prison with those sentenced to a community-based program. Although the rate of reoffending is lower for offenders sentenced in the community, when prior criminal record is controlled, there is little overall difference in recidivism rates between the two sanctions. If that is the case, it seems reasonable to choose the less expensive punishment option and reserve prisons for the select few persons who are true dangers to the rest of society.