Why ‘technical’ violations are still sending ex-cons back to California lockups

Missed appointments, failed drug screens and unpaid fines are still sending a large number of former convicts back behind bars for probation and parole violations, despite recent efforts by California to overhaul its sentencing rules and end a decades-long trend of mass incarceration.

A new study by the Council of State Governments shows that a quarter of the people incarcerated in California in 2018 were previously on probation or parole. In 2017, more than 12,000 former inmates were sent back to lockups, mostly county jails — 35 percent of whom were being locked up again because of so-called technical violations of their supervised release.

Under the law, people on parole or probation can be sent back to prison or jail for “technical” or “substantive” violations. Technical violations are usually anything that violates the terms of their release, such as possessing a firearm, failing to maintain a job or not passing a drug test. Substantive violations are new crimes committed while on probation or parole.

California has made high-profile efforts to reform its prison population, most notably through legislation that allows certain inmates to serve prison sentences in county jails and another law that reduced the number of people on felony probation. The state also passed Proposition 47, reducing penalties for many drug and property crimes.

After those changes, however, many inmates are still going back to jail and prison, costing the state an estimated $2 billion, the numbers show. A fraction of the inmates did not commit a new crime but instead committed technical infractions.

In the eyes of reform advocates, the numbers are a sign that the criminal justice system is still failing to curb unnecessary incarceration across the country. In the larger discussion about mass incarceration, probation and parole are often missed, said Julie James, director of criminal justice for Arnold Ventures, a nonprofit that funded the research project.

“Instead of people getting out of the system and reducing recidivism we are unnecessarily incarcerating too many and in turn hurting communities and families. This data should be a wake-up call to state corrections leaders, lawmakers and the public,” James said.

As a remedy, she suggested states shorten sentence lengths, cap returns to prison and limit rules to those that matter most.

“If we want to address mass incarceration we need to pay attention and take some decisive steps on probation and parole.”

After the start of the so-called realignment effort in 2011, California largely moved oversight of supervised release to counties. County jails are typically in charge of probation activities while the state oversees parole, but many local jails are handling both. Because of realignment, prisons now see a tiny number of returned inmates who committed technical violations — just 30 people in 2017.

Overall, the number of people in jail and prison for technical probation violations in California is only about 3 percent of the incarcerated population.

Nationwide, violations of supervised release accounted for 45 percent of the 590,200 admissions to prisons and jails in 2017, according to the Council of State Governments analysis. One out of four of those was for a technical violation of probation or parole.

State and county officials said the findings show how far ahead of the curve California has been in pursuing aggressive reform.

“I really think California had a lot of foresight so its something county probation departments have been actively working on for the last decade,” said Stephanie James, president of the Chief Probation Officers of California and the chief probation officer in San Joaquin County.

“Obviously, there is still some room for improvement, but not too much since it (technical probation violations) is only at the 3 percent level which is really good.”

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