Probation has long been thought of as a soft-on-crime slap on the wrist that leaves many criminals with a knowing smile.
But correctional leaders are now determined to change that. Calling probation "the most troubled and the most promising" part of the criminal-justice system, they hope to rebuild its credibility by applying the same common sense, community-based approaches police have used to bring crime rates to a 30-year low.
Experts say that if the nascent reform movement is successful, it will help make communities across the United States even safer.
"This is the next frontier for the criminal-justice system," says William Bratton, former New York City police commissioner. "If this is implemented on a comprehensive basis, I believe you will see very significant reductions in crime."
Over 60 percent of the people in the corrections system in the country are on probation. That's about 3 million people nationwide. And two-thirds of them commit new crimes within three years of their sentence, according to a report by the Reinventing Probation Council, a group of the nation's top probation officials.
And while 90 percent of probationers have been ordered by the courts to undergo drug treatment, community service, or remain under house arrest, about half don't bother to comply. But only about one-fifth of them end up back in jail.
Almost 300,000 offenders on probation have simply disappeared.
"Truth be told, probation has not done a very good job of improving public safety, enforcing court orders, or helping offenders," says John DiIulio of the Manhattan Institute, a New York think tank.
Reformers within the probation community contend that can be turned around by applying the so-called "broken windows" theory to probation. It postulates that if authorities tolerate little infractions, bigger ones will follow. So if offenders can get by ignoring their court-ordered appointment at the probation office, they may think they can also get away with breaking into the corner store.
"What we're advocating now is that we get out on the street aggressively and meet people where they live, where they recreate, [and have] effective supervision and effective treatment programs," says Gary Hinzman of the Department of Correctional Services in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
A formula for success
The formula for success is simple, many experts say:
*Impose stricter supervision by requiring probation officers to get out from behind their desks.
*Insist probationers pay back their victims or communities.
*Require that they get "clean and sober" by attending drug-treatment programs and submitting to regular random testing.
"We have ample evidence that people [under threat of incarceration] are far more likely to clean up their act," says Ronald Corbett, Boston's deputy commissioner of probation.
Boston is one of a handful of cities, including New York, Cedar Rapids, and Burlington, Vt., that have "broken down the firewall" between probation and police and instituted other such community-based reforms.
In New York, a handful of precincts have had a pilot program for the past two years called "Night Watch." Probation officers get on the streets nights and weekends, when offenders aren't used to seeing them. They also deal with the probationers' families from more of a social-work perspective.
"We're trying to provide to the family of these kids as much support as we can by keeping these kids out of harm's way," says Richard Roberts, an associate probation commissioner in New York. "We enforce curfews, make sure they're going to school, do the truancy pickups, and respond when the parent calls."
In Cedar Rapids, probation officials have also networked with the whole community, from local clergy to neighborhood-watch associations to the local drug-treatment centers.
Vermont has implemented a "reparative probation" program. Its aim is to ensure that offenders make reparations.
Community boards of local citizens have been set up around the state, and judges have been given the option of sentencing low-level offenders to meet with their local board. It then decides how perpetrators can make restitution to their victims or the local town.
"It's growing substantially and is very popular with the public," says Richard Turner, the director of operations at the Vermont Department of Corrections. "And it's growing in popularity with the courts."
Mr. Turner says the loudest critics are defense lawyers who object to not knowing the outcome of their clients' work with the board, particularly if they're involved in a plea bargain.
Criminal-justice experts admit that such experimental programs do cost money - particularly the drug treatment. But they argue it's far less expensive than continuing to throw offenders in jail. The average cost of drug treatment per year is around $3,000 compared to $25,000 to incarcerate an individual.
They also argue that this mix of "cops and counselors" in probation officers is exactly what the public means when it says it wants to get tough on crime.
"If you ask citizens what they mean by getting tough, they're talking about payback programs, treatment for effective release," says Mr. Hinzman.
"The worst thing we can do is throw people in jail for 15 years without effective treatment, and then release them cold into the community. Because then we've created hardened criminals."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society