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Broken Windows Probation: The Next Step in Fighting Crime

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Broken Windows Probation: The Next Step in Fighting Crime

August 1, 1999
Urban PolicyCrime

Violent crime rates have fallen nationally by 26 percent since 1993. Some of this drop is undoubtedly due to so-called “broken windows law enforcement” and community policing. In Boston and other places, probation departments have also helped cut crime, both on their own and in partnerships with police, community groups and clergy.

If the criminal justice system is going to keep violent crime on the run, however, it will need to do even more, beginning with a much better job of supervising the three million probationers in our midst.

This report is the work of a baker’s dozen of veteran practitioners, including several present or former leaders of the National Association of Probation Executives (NAPE) and American Probation and Parole Association (APPA), who met and deliberated independently over the past two years in Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

In sum, we believe probation is at once the most troubled and the most promising part of America’s criminal justice system. We also believe that probation’s past troubles can be but a prologue to its coming triumphs. Herein, and in a longer, more detailed report prepared for and released through NAPE and APPA, we call for a new era of “broken windows” probation and community corrections.

We admit, perhaps more candidly than leading members of our profession have ever admitted, that widespread political and public dissatisfaction with community corrections has often been totally justified. We also outline new strategies and rationales for reinvesting in and reinventing probation.

Our report is sure to attract criticism from those who say our proposals are too soft on criminals, as well as from those who say they are too tough. To those outside of our profession who respond that our ideas are too little, too late, and to those who cynically advocate abolishing probation, we say, “Get real!” Taxpayers will not finance what their ideas would imply, tripling the size of our prison system to accommodate the three million current probationers. To those within our profession who respond that our ideas concede too much to the field’s many critics and to popular misunderstandings of probation, we say, “Wake up!” As our report shows, hundreds of thousands of violent crimes are committed each year by people on probation. The public wants to reduce violent crime NOW: probation can either be part of the solution or part of the problem.

Either probation will be at the political and intellectual core of future policy-oriented efforts to promote public safety and offender rehabilitation in America, or it will continue to be widely marginalized, mischaracterized and underfunded. The days of failed low- or no-supervision “fortress probation” can and should give way to a new era of politically and administratively successful “community probation.” We hope this report not only sparks both professional and public debate, but also sharply enhances civic awareness that “probation matters” and helps launch spirited efforts to “make probation work” in cities all across the country.