Probation is the most widely used form of correctional supervision in CA. There are three other forms of correctional supervision – prison, jail, and parole. Judges can sentence convicted offenders to the supervision of probation officers as an alternative to jail or prison. The DA, public defender, and the probation department influence judicial decisions. CA’s adult supervised probation population is more than twice the size of its prison population, almost four times larger than its jail population, and about six times larger than its parole population. Probation is also the cheapest form of correctional supervisor with average cost per offender at $4,400 a year.
Probation has been reshaped by recent reforms. Since 2009, legislation has encouraged county probation departments to keep violators under community supervision instead of returning them to state prison. Realignment in 2011 & Prop 47 in 2014 magnified this mission. As a result of these efforts, one in every hundred CA adults was on probation at the end of 2016.
CA’s adult probation caseload is down 19% from its historical high of 352,449 in 2003. The statewide-supervised caseload currently sits at 285,681. Felony probation cases account for 85% of the total caseload. The share of felony cases has shifted dramatically over time: from the 1970’s to 90’s, the majority of probation cases were misdemeanors, but by 2016 misdemeanor probation cases had declined by 76%.
Since Realignment, counties have been forced to increase expenditures to meet the increasing demand for probation services. County departments spent more than $1.5 billion in 2015, nearly $400 million more than they spent in 2010. But counties are spending twice as much on jails (about $3 billion in 2015). The daily cost of supervising a probationer is roughly $12. It costs astronomically more to house an inmate in jail or prison.
It’s too soon to label this trend mass probation, but a shift from hyper incarceration to an inflated use of probation makes a whole lot of sense. It’s cheaper, allows offenders to stay in the community, and has been proven to lower recidivism. Probation is not a catch all solution to mass incarceration in CA, but offers the potential to punish with proportionality as the guiding rationale.