Not all criminal justice reforms require massive legislative changes and fights with law enforcement unions. A new study finds that better administrative communication with people on parole and probation in Arkansas helped them make their meetings with supervising officers. Missing fewer meetings results in a lower chance of being charged with a technical violation that could land them in jail or prison.
Technical violations of probation and parole are a significant challenge in overseeing alternatives to incarceration in America. These violations don't involve the commission of new crimes but rather violating the various bureaucratic rules that are part of their release conditions. These violations get people sent to jail, even though violators seldom present any threat to public safety.
Can simply sending text message reminders help stop this from happening? That's the focus of a study highlighted in a new policy brief by the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes this site). The study is titled "Addressing Mass Supervision in the United States: How Text Message Reminders Can Help Reduce Technical Violations of Community Supervision."
As a baseline, the study notes that in 2019, only about 53 percent of people on probation completed their term that year. Another 13 percent of people under supervision had their parole revoked and ended up incarcerated again. Of those, 40 percent were incarcerated due to technical violations, not new crimes. The report summary observes:
Despite their importance to effective supervision, office visits are often difficult to coordinate. Supervisees frequently miss appointments due to work, education, or difficulty securing transportation. Missed appointments and time spent coordinating meetings represent opportunities to improve the use of scarce time by parole and probation officers. Eliminating these inefficiencies would allow officers to focus their time and attention on higher-risk supervisees in greater need of intensive supervision.
The result is thousands of people going back to jail for missing meetings or other problems or mistakes that could perhaps be fixed through measures other than imprisonment (which, as a reminder, is an expensive burden on taxpayers). In Arkansas, more than a third of people sent back to jail within three years of being released on parole were sent back for technical violations, not new criminal offenses. And so the Arkansas Community Corrections agency partnered with Marquis Software to experiment with text message reminders. Starting in the summer of 2018 Marquis randomly assigned people in the Arkansas parole and probation system into four groups. Three of them received text message reminders of upcoming appointments at different intervals. The fourth group, the control group, did not get any text message reminders.
There were 3,470 participants in the study assigned to about 14,000 appointments during the experiment. By the end of the study, they found that people in all three groups that received texts were less likely to cancel or miss appointments. The differences were very notable in some cases. A little more than 7 percent of the control group missed appointments, compared to a little more than 4 percent of those who had received two reminder texts. Overall there were 30 percent fewer missed appointments during this testing period among those who received text reminders compared to those who did not.
"Even small changes in the way that community supervision is conducted at the administrative level can have large impacts on offender outcomes," Vittorio Nastasi, director of criminal policy for the Reason Foundation, tells Reason. He said that the experiment was successful enough to prompt Arkansas' Department of Corrections to make it a policy. Everybody on probation and parole now gets text message reminders. Nastasi said that after people in the control group were added to the program, their meeting compliance rate also increased.
And while the study doesn't analyze costs or cost savings, it should be fairly obvious that the cost of sending texts is much lower than the cost of putting someone behind bars. America has millions of people under some form of parole or probation supervision. There were 4.4 million in 2019, but that number has declined recently. The use of parole and probation skyrocketed from the 1990s onward, intended as an alternative to keeping people locked up. Part of the problem, though, is that the numerous supervised release terms in some states made it far too easy for people to end up back in jail over minor technical violations.
"It's a cost-effective intervention because sending a text message costs two cents," Nastasi tells Reason. "Relative to whatever the costs of the missed appointments would be, it's a pretty large impact."