A.T. Wall: Rhode Island Needs Probation Reforms

Providence Journal

When Rhode Islanders think of the Department of Corrections, the image that most likely comes to mind is a prison, complete with bars, walls, and fences. What many may not know is that our responsibility does not always end when an inmate is released from prison—we are also tasked with supervising people on probation.

Our state has the second highest probation rate in the United States—twice the national average and as much as eight times higher than some neighboring states. On any given day, more than 23,000 Rhode Islanders are on probation. One out of every 20 adult males and one in six African-American men in our state are on probation. The responsibility for supervising this large population lies with a corrections team of just 70 probation officers.

Our dedicated staff works tirelessly to make sure our facilities are safe and secure, and that offenders are rehabilitated as much as possible before they transition back into society. Our probation officers do tremendous work with our formerly incarcerated individuals too, but they have an average caseload of more than 150 cases, making it difficult for them to ensure that probationers are getting necessary services, finding gainful employment, and staying out of trouble. As the probation population grows ever larger, we must give our staff the resources, tools, and leeway necessary to identify high-risk probationers and keep them from committing future crimes.

Probation failure rates are high: half of those on probation are revoked or re-sentenced within three years. This high recidivism rate has become a significant driver of our incarcerated census. After years of decline, our prison population is projected to grow by 11 percent over the next decade, requiring millions of additional dollars for staffing and operations.

This large probation population is not inevitable. Our neighbor Massachusetts has nearly the same incarceration rate as Rhode Island despite a probation rate that is half the size of ours. It is possible to lower our probation rate without significantly increasing incarceration.

Fortunately, leaders from all three branches of our government have recognized the gravity of the problem and the urgency of addressing it. In spring 2015, the governor, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the speaker of the House, the Senate president, and other legislative leaders invited the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center to come to Rhode Island to review our probation system. Since July, the Justice Center has worked with judges, legislators, law-enforcement officials, and many other stakeholders in connection with the Justice Reinvestment Working Group to identify reforms.

This process recently culminated in the introduction of legislation in the General Assembly. Those bills — and related investments proposed by Gov. Gina Raimondo in her budget — aim to modernize our probation system. The legislation would provide more options for court and law-enforcement diversion programs, increase the use of risk assessments of defendants and probationers, improve standards for probation violations and sanctions, expand benefits for crime victims, and more.

Simultaneously, the Superior Court has taken action to update its internal court rules and has proposed changes to sentencing guidelines related to length of probation terms, suspended sentences, and standards of proof for probation revocation. The court has also proposed a mechanism to petition for early termination of probation, providing relief for those who have lived in their communities for many years without violating terms of probation. These potential rule changes are now before the Supreme Court for review and ratification.

Unless we enact reforms to reduce the probation population, we will not be able to remedy the burdens placed on probation officers or break the cycle of overwhelming caseloads, violations, and incarceration. I urge the General Assembly to move forward with these proposals. All three branches of government need to continue to work together to make meaningful changes that will reduce recidivism, keep our communities safe, and control our spending on corrections.

A.T. Wall is in his 17th year as the director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections.