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USA: probation and parole officers are rethinking their rules as coronavirus spreads

Social distancing is pressing officials across the country to skip traditional methods such as jailing people for “technical violations” like missing check-ins.

In the effort to release people from jails to stem coronavirus outbreaks behind bars, those jailed for probation and parole violations have been an obvious choice. They’re locked up not for committing new crimes but for breaking the rules of their supervision, like drinking alcohol, traveling without permission, or missing appointments. In New York alone, Governor Andrew Cuomo last week ordered the release of more than 1,000 such people from jails around the state.

These efforts spotlight the hundreds of thousands of people who are jailed each year for behavior that would be routine if they weren’t on probation or parole. Research has long called into question the public safety benefits of locking them up, and other traditional probation and parole tactics. Now social distancing orders to slow the virus are providing a way to test some changes critics have advocated. Fifty reform-minded probation and parole chiefs last week called for states and counties to “suspend or severely limit” jailing people for supervision violations that aren’t crimes, among other changes, in response to COVID-19.

One of them was Brian Lovins, president-elect of the American Probation and Parole Association. “This gives us a big opportunity to challenge the need for incarceration for non-violent folks,” he said.

With government buildings closed across the country, check-ins at parole and probation offices are all but suspended nationwide. Many departments are doing drug testing only in the most high-risk cases, according to a small New York University survey and interviews with people in the probation and parole field, known as “community corrections.” And with jails overcrowded and courthouses shuttered, some departments have stopped making arrests for breaking the rules of supervision—known as “technical violations”—unless there’s an imminent safety threat. Some places have formally ordered officers to stop bringing people to jail for technical violations. In others, fewer home visits and check-ins mean fewer opportunities for officers to discover broken rules.

To be sure, dialing back close pre- or post-release supervision is not without risk. Around the country, officers are using video and phone calls to keep in touch with people they supervise, but they lose some nuance and personal connection when they’re no longer in people’s living rooms, observing family dynamics, or visiting workplaces and having informal chats with whoever manages the person there, probation and parole professionals said in interviews.

Susan Rice, the chief probation officer in Miami County, Indiana, sees this time as a “big social experiment.”

“We all think we have to supervise these people and be drug testing them constantly and following them around. If we stop doing that, do they fall apart? Get rearrested? Overdose? Will it really happen or will we see that they’re fine?” she said.

Originally designed as an alternative to incarceration, probation and parole have instead become “a significant contributor to mass incarceration,” according to a 2017 Columbia University Justice Lab statement signed by more than 60 prosecutors and community corrections directors across the country. On any given day, supervision violations account for almost a quarter of people in prison nationwide—about 280,000 people—according to an analysis by the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center.

“This is what the research has been saying: just leave them alone,” says a probation chief in the upper Midwest, who asked not to be named so his staff don’t feel he is criticizing their usual practice. Even before the coronavirus crisis, his office had been trying to implement probation “dosing”—tailoring their support to the person’s risk and needs, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach.

“We probably still over-supervise when we don’t even intend to,” he said. With the current suspension, “I think there will be some ‘ahas’ coming out of that.”

Late last month, a Georgia man who’d recently had a double lung transplant was set to serve a year in prison for a probation violation, according to Michael Nail, the state’s commissioner of community supervision. “That’s the last person you want to be going into the prison system” under the threat of COVID-19, Nail said. Nail said he got a call from a local sheriff, who was anxious to have the man out of his jail but couldn’t get the prison system to take him. With a judge’s help, they arranged to have the man released on time served.

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