Friday, July 10, 2015

Should We Grade Everyone On A Curve? How Probation Violations Add To Recidivism

A large percentage of inmates who are "frequent flyers" find themselves returning to jail after their release because of so-called "technical violations". That is, they have not repeated the kind of crimes that got them incarcerated in the first place, but have violated one or more of the conditions placed on them as a part of their probation.

Typical examples are for not showing up for a scheduled court appearance or an appointment with their probation officer, for not passing a drug or alcohol test, for driving on a license that may have been suspended as a part of their probation, for missing a child support payment or for failure to pay a fine or court costs as mandated.

These are all significant infractions, and while some may result from honest scheduling or other understandable mistakes, most are inexcusable. At the same time, they may not necessarily represent a person being a threat to their communities or to themselves.

This brings me to the concept of "conduct grades".

If we were to assign behavior grades to  citizens of our community, they would  represent a bell curve with a full range of scores from A to F. Most of us would agree that we can't categorize most people as either completely good or completely bad, as deserving all A's or all F's. Those would represent the numbers at the far left or far right of the bell curve.

We might consider the vast majority of reasonably "law-abiding" citizens as being somewhere in the C average category, all sinners represented by the dark blue area on the graph. We might think of the ones on the left of the middle line as those who occasionally or frequently get caught and are found guilty of crimes. Others with similar behaviors might manage to avoid detection or have more of the financial means needed to defend themselves in court.

As already noted, only the truly saintly among us are straight-A citizens, consistently in the light blue areas. These could be considered folks who are never guilty of even occasional traffic violations, who accurately report every single item on every tax return, and who never violate any of the multitudes of other existing laws, known and unknown.

Others might habitually live at a D or C- level, making them much more likely to get in legal trouble by drinking too much or using illegal drugs, getting rough in the treatment of a child or other family member in a fit of anger, or otherwise breaking the law in more obvious ways for which they may or may not be getting caught.

Once found guilty of a misdemeanor in the C- category, or charged with a felony in the D or F range, everything changes. When these individuals are put on probation, they are then typically expected to earn B+ or A- conduct grades while under supervision.

Maybe that's a good thing. After all, if we have offended and have been found guilty as charged, having to live up to high expectations isn't necessarily a bad thing.

However, as a society we might do well to at least do some cost-benefit analysis. How high should we set the bar?

Certainly expecting offenders not to repeat the same or a worse crime isn't expecting too much. But other details regarding probation requirements become a matter of judgment. We don't want to make probation such a large and sticky 'net' that most offenders are set up to fail, yet we want to help them learn to be more and more accountable for their actions.

What are your thoughts?
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