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Tough probation plan eases strain on crowded cellblocks

By Jim BencivengaStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 22, 1983

New York

Few people fault Georgia for being soft on crime. It has one of the highest incarceration rates of any political entity in the Western world. Likewise, since the days of the famed Texas Rangers, the Lone Star State has had a no-nonsense reputation for law enforcement. More people are in Texas prisons than are imprisoned in any other state. And like many other states, both Georgia and Texas are pressed to the limit by prison overcrowding.

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So when each took a new look at probation for convicted criminals, it sparked interest among corrections officials nationwide.

Georgia, Texas, and New York began what correction officials call Intensive Probation Supervision (IPS). The requirements are stringent. Nothing ''like it has been tried in this country before,'' says Christopher Baird, a national consultant in corrections.

Put simply, IPS calls for intensive surveillance of - plus community service and victim restitution by - a convicted individual, in lieu of being jailed. It seeks to control and punish many minor, nonviolent offenders in a way that doesn't put added strain on already crowded United States prisons. The fact that 37 states have mandatory-sentencing laws and 31 are under court order to reduce prison overcrowding guarantees that a successful program will be copied by other states, Mr. Baird says.

''The woeful condition of probation in many jurisdictions - high caseloads, few resources and those being diverted to new prison construction by court-ordered mandates to correct overcrowding - plus the public's perception that probation is not punishment, too often make prison the only acceptable option for judges,'' says Judge Albert Kramer, presiding judge of the Quincy District Court in Massachusetts. ''IPS offers a viable alternative.''

From the program's inception, Georgia has made certain that IPS would be used only for those who were ineligible for general probation and would have gone to prison, says Larry Anderson, the state administrator of the program. ''Given the limits to our size, we try to screen only those who have already been sentenced to prison terms. We've even gone into the prisons (see sidebar) to bring inmates back into the community on probation.''

A mix of ''concern and control'' lies at the heart of Georgia's IPS, Mr. Anderson says. With 13 two-officer teams handling a caseload of no more than 25 individuals per team, ''We become a daily part of each client's life.'' The program has been so successful that 5 teams were added to the original 13 last February, and 8 more will be added in July.

Georgia locates its IPS teams in the counties that send the most people to prison. ''We wanted it to appeal to the state's most conservative judges,'' Anderson says. It is designed to last from 9 to 12 months, after which a probationer who is performing satisfactorily is transferred to regular probation.

The fact that the state was not required to put up any new money helped sell the program. All funds for IPS come from a monthly fee of $10 to $50, which the department asks judges to levy on general probationers as a condition of release.

The cost is $4.75 per offender per day compared with $0.75 per day for general probation. But since it costs a little more than $24.50 a day per prisoner in the state prison system, almost $20 a day is saved. Factoring in capital outlays for construction, plus differing sentence lengths, officials figure the cost of the program at less than 1/10th of imprisonment.

And should an offender break the rules of his probation, a special warrant squad picks him up within 24 to 48 hours.

Incarceration is just like anything else paid for by public funds, says Todd Clear, associate professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University. ''You don't hand out money indiscriminately, but effectively. The evidence in favor of structured, intensive supervision of high-risk offenders is hard to argue with in Georgia, Texas, and New York. On the other side, just dumping money in general probation as opposed to prison is not effective, just cheaper.''