The Challenges of Justice Reinvestment-William Burrell
DC Public Safety Radio
LEONARD SIPES: From the nation’s capital this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host Leonard Sipes. Back at our microphones, ladies and gentlemen, Bill Burrell. Bill is an independent corrections management consultant and author of a book that I find very interesting. He can be reached at william.burrell, B-U-R-R-E-L-L, at comcast.net. The topic of today’s program is the challenge of justice reinvestment; what’s happening in parole and probation throughout the United States in terms of new ways of doing things, new ways of coping with the criminal justice system. Bill, welcome back to DC Public Safety.
BILL BURRELL: Thank you, Len. It’s great to be with you.
LEONARD SIPES: Bill, before we started the program we were talking about the corollary of mental health back in the 60s and 70s. We did have a massive undertaking throughout the country, where we sort of recognized that these large mental hospitals in virtually every state in the Unites States, and it probably was not a good idea to keep mentally incapacitated people in these large hospitals, these large structures. They probably could be a better treated, better dealt with out in the community. Yet we never did develop the community infrastructure to handle all those people coming out of all of those state mental hospitals and the disparaging fact is that it now seems that the criminal justice system is the principal provider of mental health treatment. Comment on that. Am I right or wrong?
BILL BURRELL: Yes. You’re right on the money there, Len. The idea was a good one. You think about those hospitals. You think about the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. They were pretty horrible places. And once these new psychotropic drugs were developed back in the 50s and 60s they were able to stabilize the symptoms and consider the release of these to the community, which made a whole lot of sense, it’s a lot cheaper, much more humane, and more effective. But, as you mentioned, the community infrastructure, the group homes, residential facilities to house these folks in the community were never built. So we ended up with a good idea that went pretty horribly wrong. And now some 20, 30 years later we’re looking at the jails and prisons being populated largely by some of the socially released with mental problems.
LEONARD SIPES: But what we’re talking about here is that we had a great idea and we implemented it and they went into the community. Without community infrastructure to take care of the mentally ill they end up with us in the criminal justice system. And there’s a lot of people out there who would say that somehow, someway there became a big difference between what was conceptualized and what actually happened.
BILL BURRELL: Well, that’s exactly the problem. We had a great idea, but it was implemented poorly, and that seems to be a very common story in the criminal justice system and maybe in government in general, that a good idea is developed, researchers come up with it, they test it, they evaluate it, and they put it out there, and then once it’s turned over to folks in agencies, for a variety of reasons, some of which relates to the fact that folks are really not trained in large scale organizational change and implementation, the execution of a good idea is flawed and the results that we expected don’t happen, because we really didn’t do the program as it was designed. And that was the lesson I guess we have to learn from the institutionalization of the mentally ill. It was one of the stools on the, one of the legs on the stool, so to speak, was the capacity in the community to have, supervise, and oversee the people released, and that never was completed, and we lost those folks in the community, in the boarding houses and the single room occupancy hotels in cities and they just disappeared.
LEONARD SIPES: Now, our program is called today the Challenges of Justice Reinvestment: The Impact on Parole and Probation because we see the possibility of a connection between that experience, the idea in terms of the institutionalization, dealing with mentally ill, the fact that there was not a sufficient infrastructure created to deal with all these people coming out. So we’re saying today that there’s the possibility that with justice reinvestment or reorganizing the way that we conduct business within the criminal justice system in terms of evidence based practices, in terms, again, of justice reinvestment, that there’s the possibility that the same thing may happen with parole and probation agencies that are not given sufficient staffing, money, resources, to deal with an increasing parole and probation population. Is that the connection?
BILL BURRELL: Yeah. That’s kind of the nub of the problem. Again, we have a situation with our prisons in the United States, they’re massively overcrowded, they’re not good places to house people with addiction problems, lack of education, and a whole variety of other problems. So the justice reinvestment model is saying we need to reduce those prison populations, get people out or don’t send them in, in the first place who are lower risk, nonviolent, less serious offenders, and handle them in a different way, thereby reducing prison populations, and if you can reduce those by enough you can actually close institutions and save money. And the second part of that logic is that a portion of that money would be reallocated or reinvested in community corrections to build the capacity to handle these folks. Now, and that’s a great idea, and where it has happened it has worked pretty well, if we look at the state of Texas and their experience. But part of the challenge is that the probation and parole system in this country is so overwhelmed. We have 70% of the correctional, adult correctional population is under the supervision of probation and parole, which surprises some people though, because they think we’ve locked everybody up over the last 30 years. Well, we have, but we’ve also put a lot more people under community control on probation and parole.
LEONARD SIPES: I think in the seven million, the correctional population between prisons and jails, it’s two million in community supervision, it’s five million. Am I in the ballpark?
BILL BURRELL: That’s right. And what’s interesting is if you look at the historical numbers, you go back to the early 1980s when the Bureau of Justice Statistics starting reporting on probation on parole populations, we have had 70% of the population ever since that time. So it’s been consistent over decades. When you look at the impact of the war on drugs in the 80s probation actually absorbed a greater amount of the results of that war on drugs than did the prison system. So we are, in my experience, when I was with probation in New Jersey, our individual caseloads went from 110 per officer in 1981 to 189 per officer in 1988, which was directly the result of changes in our laws and enforcement practices around drugs. So we have to remember that the base that we’re looking to focus on for these justice reinvestment efforts is pretty resource poor, pretty lacking the capacity to really do the work for the population they have right now, not to mention any increased number of people coming in. And one of the challenges is when you look at diverting people out of prison these could be higher risk people with more needs and problems and demands on a system. It is currently unable to really effectively address the population that it has.
LEONARD SIPES: Now, we at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency here in Washington DC we do have caseloads of 50 or less per parole and probation agent, what we call community supervision officers. But my experience in talking to people from throughout the country, as a result of the radio and television shows that we’ve done and when I go out and do training, it’s no usual they tell for there to be a ratio of 150 or more for every parole and probation agent out there. Now, I do know there are some jurisdictions where it is fairly close to 50 to 1, but my guess, and this is nothing more than a guess, is that the overwhelming majority of the people that I talk to that’s not their experience, the overwhelming majority of the people that I talk to are operating 125, 150 cases per parole and probation agent or more. So when you have caseloads of that size it’s awfully hard to do cognitive behavioral therapy, it’s awfully hard to really get into the lives of these individuals, encourage them to do better, encourage them to look at a different way of doing things, encouraging them to get drug treatment, mental health treatment, vocational programs, encourage them to find jobs and help them find jobs to do the home visits. All of these things are very labor-intensive and very difficult to do when you have caseloads of 150 to 1.
BILL BURRELL: Yeah. Well, you said it very well and my experience echoes yours. When I go to the American Probation and Parole Association conferences twice a year and other conferences and through my consulting and work with APPA I talk to a lot of folks around the country. And the ideal caseload or the optimal caseload of 50 to 1 is a very rare occurrence, unfortunately. And we do see lots of departments, particularly where you have states with county-based probation departments, these caseloads tend to be much higher than recommended, in some cases, as you said, 150 or more. And it’s hard to even keep track of the activities of those folks, no less spend the quality time you need to with them to get to know them, get to know their problems, connect them with resources, follow up, and so on. It’s just it can’t be done with those large caseloads.
LEONARD SIPES: All right, I’m hearing the same thing. When I do the radio shows I would imagine the most popular response to the radio shows is, “Len, I listen to you talk about justice reinvestment, I listen to you talk about evidence-based practices, I’m 100% behind you. That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s what we want to do. We want to have a good relationship with the people under supervision. We want to encourage them to do better. We want to get them involved in programs. We want to work with their families. We want to work with the faith based community. We want to do all of these things. We simply don’t have the resources to do them.” So if that’s true, why is there such a disconnect between the lofty sense of what I hear from my very good friends at the Department of Justice or Pew or Urban or Vera or lots of other organizations, American Probation and Parole Association, Council of State Governments, all of us are solidly behind justice reinvestment, all of us are solidly behind evidence-based practices, so why is there such a disconnect between what all of us want and what the reality is?
BILL BURRELL: Well, that’s probably the 64,000 dollar question. I think some of it has to do with a disconnect between community corrections and policymakers, legislators, governors, officers and so on. We’re kind of a stepchild of the justice system, despite the fact that we own 70% of the workload. You don’t, you can’t go to a probation department and see caseload crowding like you can go to a prison or jail and look at the tiers and see people crowded, double, triple bunked and things like that. We tend to be seen as a, what I would say, a magical expanding resource, that more cases you give us we just expand and we take them in. Well, we put them on the books, but we really are not capable of keeping up with the workload demands. So as you add more bodies to this system the amount of time spent with each one goes down, the quality of that time generally goes down. So you’re diminishing the capacity of the system to do what it needs to do, but it’s very hard to see that physically. And we also don’t do a very good job as a field in terms of communicating performance information, outcomes, results, process measures and so on. We don’t really do a very good job of that.
So it’s hard to convince people of the nature of our problem and the extents of our problem, because we tend to be out of sight, out of mind, we don’t communicate well, we tend to in the field have a sense that we don’t have political and public support for the work that we do. And, fortunately, the research and the polling work that I’ve seen suggests exactly the opposite, that we do things that are valued by the community, and I think that is becoming more and more clear over the last few years, that we create public value for the community and we need to connect that value to the need for support, political support, community support, resource support and so on, to make that case that we do need the resources. We can do a lot better if we’ve got the capacity, the number of officers and staff we need to supervise in cases, and what I also like to say is the capability, the skills, the knowledge, the training, the resources for treatment and so on that will enable to effectively supervise those folks that we’ve already got in our caseloads. And if you want to do justice reinvestment, which everybody seems to be on board with, I just was reading that I think the 27th state just signed up for it, Utah, so better than half the country has signed onto this. And we need to figure out a way to communicate that we could be creating another deinstitutionalization type of situation if we begin pushing people out of prisons and jails into probation and parole caseloads without the capacity to provide effective supervision.
LEONARD SIPES: And what would that do, Bill? Before the program we were talking about the danger of what?
BILL BURRELL: Well, if you put more people and potentially higher risk people into probation caseloads the amount and the quality of supervision is going to decline and the inevitable result of that will be more crime in the community committed by people under the supervision of probation and parole officers. And what keeps me up at night is that the blame will then be placed on the probation and parole agencies, “Well, you didn’t supervise these people effectively.” Well, part of the problem is we have a caseload of 150 and no one, I don’t care who you are, can supervise that size caseload effectively.
LEONARD SIPES: Our guest –
BILL BURRELL: So this…. Go ahead.
LEONARD SIPES: Let me reintroduce you, Bill. We’re more than halfway through the program. Our guest today is Bill Burrell. He’s been at our microphones multiple times before. He’s an independent corrections management consultant and author of a pretty interesting book. – oh, I’m sorry at william.burrell, B-U-R-R-E-L-L at comcast.net, william.B-U-R-R-E-L-L at comcast.net. Bill, you’ve been dealing with parole and probation agencies throughout the country in terms of your consultant role. You spent years with the New Jersey I think Department of Parole and Probation, is that correct?
BILL BURRELL: The Jersey court system, yeah, probation.
LEONARD SIPES: The Jersey court system, probation. So you have decades of experience in this, you’re out and about, you talk to people from throughout the country, you’re very well integrated with our friends at the American Probation and Parole Association, you go to their conferences, so you’re hearing this from more than a couple people.
BILL BURRELL: Yes, yes. And then this is kind of the theme I hear from almost everybody. There’s a frustration because they’ve read about and been trained on evidence-based practices, which is a pretty powerful vehicle for improving the results of what we do, but then they look at the, their organization, their department, and they look at their caseloads and they look at their lack of training resources and so on and they say, “We can’t do it. We don’t have the ability to move up to this new level of performance that we believe in, we think it’s a good idea, we’d like to do.” But it’s the ability to implement EBP, which is a much abused term these days, I think people throw it around very loosely, but really we’re talking about a set of practices that if they are implemented will reduce the risk of recidivism by the population that we supervise, reliably anywhere between 10% to 15%, 20% reductions in recidivism, which is significant. So people are looking at that and saying, “Gee, we’d like to be able to that, we would like to do our job better, we just don’t see how we can do it.”
And some of that relates to another issue that really hasn’t hit the radar screen of too many people yet. We’ve talked a lot about mass incarceration in this country. Some people are now starting to talk about mass supervision, those five million people that are under probation and parole supervision, how many of them really need to be on probation? Are there low-risk offenders there? Are there minor drug offenders? Are there people – there’re lots of people in my experience that’ll get placed on probation just to enable the court to collect fines and restitution fees and so on. So how much of that five million people is the chaff, so to speak, of the caseload that could be handled in some other fashion?
LEONARD SIPES: But I think that’s the point that most of the folks, again, that I just mentioned, from Pew, from Urban, and, again, are good friends and people who were completely supportive of, from Department of Justice and from other organizations will simply say you take those lower level individuals and you do, quote, unquote, “something else with them”. Their supervised by kiosks, they’re supervised administratively, that we have little contact with people at the lower end of the spectrum so we have the resources to devote towards people who do pose a clear and present danger or a risk to public safety. And you do that through objective risk and needs instruments and properly validated for local conditions and there you go, voila, the problem is solved.
BILL BURRELL: Yeah. In fact, Vince Schiraldi, who was the Commissioner of Probation in New York City up until recently, and Mike Jacobson, who you may have encountered, who was also the Commissioner of Probation for a while, they just wrote a piece called “Could Less Be More When it Comes to Probation Supervision?”, and talking about reducing the amount of people, low-risk people on supervision, and those that are there, reducing the amount of resources that they devote to them. And New York was one of the, I think the first, or the most prominent department to do kiosk supervision. And they had at one point almost two thirds of their population was reporting on kiosks and the re-arrest rate was like 1.5%. It was no different than the general citywide re-arrest rate. So we have lots of folks that did stupid things, were in the wrong place at the wrong time, whatever the scenario you want to present, are really not a risk. These are people that we should have the minimum amount to do with, collect whatever financial obligations we want from them, or whatever else we need to do, and then get them out of the system as quickly as possible, because we’re learning that we can actually make things worse by supervising those people, having them hang out with high-risk offenders in the waiting room in the probation department. Well, guess what. It’s usually the bad guys who make the good guys bad, not the other way around.
LEONARD SIPES: Well, we’re also told that trying to help individuals at the lower end of the continuum also poses a problem, because if you have a person who is a lower risk offender, the judge orders drug treatment for that individual, well, that’s just money that’s taken up that could be reallocated towards a higher risk individual. And if he or she doesn’t complete that treatment or they’re going half the time or they’re creating a problem within the group, bam, they’re revoked and out in a prison.
BILL BURRELL: Yeah. And we have lots of places where judges and prosecutors almost reflexively give probation, and they put on lots of conditions, special conditions of supervision, most of which they have no intention of enforcing, but it makes them feel good, makes them feel like we’re being tough on crime. Well, you got to realize that every one of those people you place on probation has a set of conditions that a probation has to enforce, and, ultimately, they can be brought back into court for failure to do that, to live up to those conditions, and potentially go to jail.
LEONARD SIPES: But help me, because I’m struggling with this, because if we did that then are the folks who at the national level are right? What they’re saying is, is that take that good percentage of your caseload – you just said that two thirds of the probation caseload in New York City was being supervised by kiosk and they had the same re-arrest rate as the general population. Then the question now becomes, is why aren’t we taking that I don’t know what percentage, two third, one third, one half, whatever that is of the lower risk offenders and doing something else with them besides regular and parole, then why aren’t we doing that? That’s what the people at the national level would say. It’s that it’s not a capacity issue; it’s the lack of a willingness on our part to do, quote, unquote, “something else with lower level offenders”.
BILL BURRELL: Well, that’s the I think the new breaking issue right now is focusing on the sentencing decision and the plea bargaining decision and introducing risk assessment into that. And there were just a series of things in the paper; Attorney General Holder came out apparently against using risk assessment in sentencing, which is kind of going against the tide of where the field seems to be going in terms of evidence-based decision-making. But the sentencing decision usually focuses on the seriousness of the crime and the extent of the offender’s prior involvement, prior record, and that’s pretty much it. And that really doesn’t get to the question of risk. To some extent prior record is a driver of risk, but there’re a lot of other factors that are involved. So we have people sentencing offenders for lots of reasons that have little or nothing to do with their risk of reoffending. Now, there may be other objectives of sentencing you want to accomplish, deterrents and punishment and so on, and we have to accomplish, accommodate those. But until we can figure out a way to help judges and defense attorneys and public defenders and DAs get a sense of the level of risk and sentence accordingly, we’re not going to get a reduction in the number of low-risk offenders that are going into probation.
LEONARD SIPES: But they could say the onus is on us. They could say that, “Okay, fine. We imposed all these restrictions. You do with them what you think is permissible.” Again, going back to the example of New York City probation where two thirds are in kiosks. They’re simply going to say, “Hey. We did what we think is proper, now you make the decision in terms of how you handle them.” And all we have to do is shift massive amounts of people into these lower level categories and suddenly we have the resources for the higher level people. What they’re going to say is that’s our job not theirs.
BILL BURRELL: Well, yes, there’s a good deal of truth to that, but one of the problems we see is judges will impose a probation sentence, sometimes three, four, five years, with lots of conditions, and send it over to probation, and probation is obligated to enforce those conditions, and sometimes that’s not possible by putting them on a kiosk kind of reporting. So some of this has to do with the use of probation in terms of the length of time, the number of conditions, even beyond the question of whether they should be on probation at all, because each one of those cases consumes probation resources.
LEONARD SIPES: Sure.
BILL BURRELL: I had a discussion with one of our judges in New Jersey years ago and his favorite sentence was to put somebody on probation until the restitution is collected. So all he wanted was the money. He wanted to get the money to the victim of the crime.
LEONARD SIPES: Right.
BILL BURRELL: He really didn’t want the person being supervised by a probation officer.
LEONARD SIPES: Right.
BILL BURRELL: But I, and I suggested to him there was another mechanism in our criminal code that enabled us in probation to collect that money for him and hold that person accountable without me having to devote a professional probation officer to that case. He said, “Gee, I had no idea.” Well, so shame on me too, you know, that we weren’t really educating folks about the implications of those probation sentences and then also that there were other mechanisms within the criminal code to accomplish the objective that he was looking to accomplish.
LEONARD SIPES: So in the final four minutes, basically what you’re saying, Bill, is that we, within the criminal justice system throughout the country, need to have a very powerful examination as to how we conduct business, how we do what we do, and if we’re unwilling to do something else with lower level individuals then at least give us the resources, the caseloads, the treatment resources, the training, the money to do it well.
BILL BURRELL: Yes. But I would first argue that we need to look at the front end of the system, the whole criminal processing up to the point of sentencing, diversion of low-risk offenders, presentencing into treatment programs if they need them, really begin to sort through that pile of offenders coming into the system and figure out who’s really dangerous, who are we really scared of, who really needs to be punished by going to prison, who are those people with serious problems that need to be supervised by probation officers to get them into treatment and so on. And that group that I call the chaff, the low-risk, minor offenders that we’re just mad at, we’re not scared of, we’re just mad at them, let’s not push them father into the system. Let’s find other ways of dealing with them in the community so that the caseload of a probation department is really moderate and high-risk people. The low-risk people for the most part never get there.
And that means a much more systematic, disciplined sorting process in the presentencing arena so that we’ve taken them out as much as we can so that what we’re left with is the people who really do need supervision. And then when you begin to think about the justice reinvestment side of things, because you go back a couple years, the Pew Public Safety Performance Project published a report, it talked about the amount of money, how the corrections dollar is allocated, and 12% of the corrections dollar was going to probation and parole, even though we have 70% of the population. Most expensive parole supervision was 7,000 dollars a year. And the average prison
BILL BURRELL: Prison cost –
LEONARD SIPES: Yeah.
BILL BURRELL: Was six or seven times that. I said, “I don’t –”
LEONARD SIPES: Yes.
BILL BURRELL: “I don’t even want all of that difference. Just give me, just double what I’m getting and I could do amazing things.”
LEONARD SIPES: The bottom line between it, the bottom line is that our people within parole and probation throughout the country want to do a good job, they’re dedicated to what they’re doing, they’re very important to our public safety, they’re very important to limiting the expenditures of tax paid dollars, they’re dedicated to justice reinvestment, they’re dedicated to evidence-based practices, they simply want a decent shot of doing that job well. That’s the bottom line, correct?
BILL BURRELL: Absolutely. You don’t stay in the field of probation and parole for very long if you’re not interested in helping people. And what we’ve found out from the research on burnout, for example, is that it’s not working with the offenders that burns out probation and parole officers; it’s impossible policies and procedures and organizational structures, which includes very large caseloads, that effectively prohibit them from doing the job that they came in to do.
LEONARD SIPES: Bill, it’s a fascinating conversation. As always, I invite you back to the microphones any time, because you provide a sense of clarity from the field that sometimes we don’t hear from the national organizations. Ladies and gentlemen, our guest today has been Bill Burrell, independent corrections management consultant and author. You can reach at William, W-I-L-L-I-A-M.B-U-R-R-E-L-L at comcast.net. Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. We appreciate your comments, we even appreciate your criticisms, and we want everybody to have themselves a very, very pleasant day.