July 17, 2023
A new study–“At The Intersection of Probation and Jail Reduction Efforts”–is a building block in understanding how probation, jail, and housing challenges intersect, and how providing transitional housing support can help reduce jail incarceration.
Probation populations have been a major driver of prison and jail incarceration in the United States through arrests for new crimes and technical violations, contributing substantially to mass incarceration. One recent national analysis found that a third of all people in jail were on probation at the time of arrest; 27 percent of the people in jail were there due to technical violations of probation. There are also substantial racial and ethnic disparities in probation sentences and outcomes.
Housing instability is also a major issue for people on probation and a serious factor in criminal-legal involvement, though there is limited research on this topic. One 2018 report found that formerly incarcerated people are nearly ten times more likely to experience homelessness than the general public. The increased risk of criminal-legal involvement, especially incarceration, can be particularly salient among people serving probation, who are required to report and maintain a valid address as a probation condition. Failing to do so can result in jail incarceration.
Our study came about as part of a national effort to lower jail populations. Pima County, Arizona has made reforms to address probation-related drivers of jail incarceration as a community participating in the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC). The SJC aims to safely reduce jail populations and eliminate racial inequities in incarceration.
Analysis conducted by Pima County found that, in 2016, over 500 people who had two or more bookings in the county jail in the prior year also lacked a permanent housing address. The county’s various subsequent reforms addressing probation-related drivers of jail included strengthening transitional housing support for people on probation to address the pervasive housing challenges.
The Urban Institute partnered with the Adult Probation Department (APD) in Pima County to study probation-related pathways to jail incarceration and system-level trends in jail incarceration for people on probation. The study also looks at the effects of providing transitional housing support to people on probation, particularly in terms of jail use. Urban analyzed administrative data on people in jail and on probation, conducted interviews and reviewed probation case files for this study. The final research report is accompanied by a research brief focusing on the transitional housing work.
Looking at the Probation Population and Pathways To Jail
The study found that on average, probation sentences in Pima County were between three and four years long. Compared to the county’s overall population, the Hispanic and Black populations were overrepresented among people on probation. Hispanic people accounted for 39 percent of the county population but 43 percent of the probation population, and Black people accounted for 4 percent of the county population but 13 percent of the probation population. Roughly 10 percent of all jail bookings in Pima County were due to probation violations, representing an overall low portion of admissions to jail. However, average length of stay in jail for people with probation violations was 66 days, which is nearly three times as long as that for the pretrial population (25 days) and five times as long as that for the sentenced population (13 days).
Through the study, the research team identified the major ways that people on probation were ending up in jail. First, they can be detained in jail before their probation violation disposition. Second, people on probation can be held in jail as a formal non-revocation sanction, like for example a short-term stay for a failed drug test. Finally, in cases of more serious violations, people on probation can have their probation terminated and be sent to jail for probation revocations or coterminous sentences. The main probation violations resulting in jail stays are commitment of serious, new offenses and/or absconding.
The Effects of Transitional Housing
Between January 2020 and June 2022, 331 people serving probation in Pima County received financial assistance to access transitional housing. The Adult Probation Department prioritized people with higher risk of violating probation and more critical housing needs when making decisions around funding for transitional housing. Accordingly, people who received financial support to access transitional housing were more likely to be charged with a felony at the time of original sentencing, classified as higher risk based on criminogenic risk scores, generally had more formal violation petitions filed against them, were on the Intensive Probation Supervision caseload, and have sentences that entail both incarceration and probation terms.
Based on an analysis of administrative data, the research team found that the odds of jail incarceration upon violating probation conditions were not significantly different for people who received Adult Probation Department funding for transitional housing from those who did not. Yet, it is important to note that these null effects can be due to the small number of people served and limited data available on people who received transitional housing support, given that the program is in its early stages of implementation. Additionally, interviewed stakeholders perceived transitional housing support for people on probation to be a crucial stabilizing force and meaningful to their well-being. For example, they claimed that it helps with securing employment, attending programs such as those related to substance use or financial literacy, opening a bank account, and securing more permanent housing. Based on this multi-faceted definition, multiple housing providers posited a success rate of around 70 percent for their residents who were on probation. Transitional housing can be crucial in providing people immediate (albeit temporary) stability, instilling accountability, and reducing the likelihood of absconding among people experiencing housing instability.
Transitional housing can be a crucial part of a multifaceted approach to providing stability to people serving probation, but it may be insufficient in and of itself. A person receiving transitional housing support while serving probation said: “If I don’t have a place to live, then [probation authorities] would send me back to prison while I was on probation. Your probation officer has to have a place to visit you. Also, [housing provides] protection from the weather. If there was more help, then there would be more success. This should come from APD. The housing providers’ job is to maintain the house and that is already difficult enough for them. APD should be required to help them find jobs; It’s not just about housing, it’s about employment and helping them integrate back into society.”
If the goal is to reduce incarceration nationally, it is imperative that communities like Pima County continue to build on its efforts to reduce its overall jail population and further constrict the pathways from probation to jail. While its efforts have already reaped significant results – in terms of a smaller overall probation population in recent years, and only a small proportion of the probation population having jail-related outcomes – jail is still one of the main response options for people on probation, particularly individuals experiencing housing challenges or struggling with mental health or substance use issues. This jail use should be further reduced as part of broader efforts to deal with housing, mental health and substance use issues through non-punitive, non-carceral and more rehabilitative means. The county should also address broader, more structural issues such as the dearth of affordable and accessible housing and treatment facilities.
The county’s various jail population reductions, particularly its housing programs, are therefore a step in the right direction. Even though the quantitative assessment did not provide statistically significant evidence of improved outcomes, the qualitative findings show that stakeholders perceived the transitional housing support to be extremely meaningful to the wellbeing of beneficiaries, and it is important to continue developing interventions to tackle this important topic. Moving forward, Pima County and other communities can use this analysis to not only examine but also reduce their jail populations, limit the pathways from probation to jail and strengthen housing support as part of their push towards improved public safety. As the transitional housing program expands, and more data is collected and made available, an impact assessment of the program could provide more robust estimates on its efficacy on probation outcomes.