According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 300,000 people were on probation or parole in California in 2019. And in 2020, about 11% of people sent to California prisons were incarcerated due to technical violations of the terms of their parole or probation.
Even small changes in the way criminal justice oversight programs are administered can have important impacts and help achieve the goals of criminal justice reform to reduce recidivism and reduce prison populations. Simply sending text message reminders can reduce missed probation and probation interviews by nearly 30 percent, finds a new policy brief from the Reason Foundation. Reducing the number of missed appointments could help prevent some people from being sent back to jail or jail for technical violations.
Probation and probation are intended to provide a more constructive alternative to incarceration by allowing offenders to be supervised within their communities. However, some research suggests that community surveillance programs may contribute to the problem of mass incarceration in unintended ways.
Persons on parole and probation must adhere to strict rules and procedures. Behavior that violates these rules but is not a criminal offense is considered a technical violation. Technical violations include missed appointments with supervisors, failed drug tests and curfew violations.
One of the most common and important requirements of persons on probation and probation is regular contact with a supervisor in charge of their case through face-to-face meetings. Supervisors often provide employment updates, receive support and treatment, and are tested for recent drug use at these meetings. Higher risk supervisees usually need to have more contact through more frequent meetings.
At the same time, regulators are often underfunded and regulators overburdened with cases. As the number of people on parole and probation has increased over the past several decades, regulators and the officers they employ have had to do more with less. Coordinating the supervision sessions is a significant inefficiency.
One relatively small reform focused on reducing the frequency of missed appointments for probation and parole supervision is showing promise: sending out text messages reminding supervisees to attend upcoming meetings. From picking up prescription drugs to reminders for a doctor’s appointment, text message reminders are commonplace in most Californians’ everyday lives. Recently, some governments have experimented with sending SMS reminders to improve court visits, with positive results.
In a randomized experiment of text message reminders for upcoming probation and probation sessions in Arkansas, a sample of parole and probation subjects were randomly assigned to one of four experimental groups. Three groups received SMS reminders for upcoming meetings at different time intervals. The fourth group served as a control group and did not receive SMS. The group that received a text message the day before their upcoming meeting had 21% fewer canceled meetings and 29% fewer missed appointments compared to the control group, according to the Reason Foundation study.
These results suggest that even minor changes, such as sending text message reminders, can have a significant impact on individuals within the criminal justice system. To the extent that missed appointments lead to technical violations of probation and probation and increase the burden on invigilators, SMS reminders could be a cost-effective improvement. The program only costs the Arkansas Division of Community Corrections about two cents per text message.
Reducing missed appointments could allow supervisors to spend more time managing the cases of higher-risk supervisees. Research suggests that effective invigilation can improve long-term outcomes for parole and paroleees, but invigilators require adequate time and resources to do their job effectively.
California should be at the forefront of using technology — in this case, simple text messaging — to help citizens reintegrate into society and improve their lives. Of course, the state’s parole and probation systems could be reformed much more significantly in the criminal justice system. Still, texting reminders for probation and parole interviews is a simple and inexpensive way to help people stay on track and reduce recidivism.
Vittorio Nastasi is Director of Criminal Justice Policy at the Reason Foundation.