Rayshard Brooks Highlights the Problem with Probation
Like many of you, the RED team recently watched the above interview featuring Mr. Rayshard Brooks. The interview was filmed just 4 months before he was shot and killed by Atlanta Police Officer Garrett Rolfe. The video was released by the New York-based REFORM Alliance, a criminal justice organization that is working in Georgia and several other states to reform the way the criminal justice system operates. In the video, Mr. Brooks references the difficulties he faced due to being on probation, and how the resulting pressure can often be impossible to overcome.
Unfortunately, Mr. Brooks’ experience is not uncommon. In the state of Georgia, where RED is located, and where Mr. Brooks was murdered, the rate of individuals on probation is roughly 320% higher than the national average. To reiterate the point, Georgia leads the nation with 5,600 people on probation per 100,000 adults. Rhode Island, which has the second-largest probation population, has 2,822 per 100,00 adults.
In Georgia, the average community supervision officer, better known as a probation officer, handles a caseload of 120-130 people. This number is more than double what the American Probation and Parole Association deems appropriate. With such an overload of cases, issues will inevitably arise.
So why is this problem so prevalent in Georgia? According to a 2017 study conducted by the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, these high rates can be traced back to two main issues:
“probation was used widely as a sentence in lieu of incarceration and in combination with imprisonment as a split sentence” , and
Georgia’s average probation period is much longer than other states. The nationwide average of a probation sentence is roughly 4 years. In Georgia, the average is 6.3 years.
So maybe you’re wondering, “how does that translate into more probationers?”
In the same study, the Council on Criminal Justice Reform found that more than 2 out of every 3 people who entered a prison were there based on a probation or parole violation. To highlight that statistic, let’s play out a hypothetical scenario.
I’m a young man in Georgia and I get arrested on a felony marijuana possession. In lieu of a prison sentence, I’m given 6 years of probation. During those 6 years, and forevermore, I’m a felon. While incarcerated and waiting for my bail hearing, I missed a couple days of work, and once my employer found out about the charge, I was terminated. I know the job market is tough on felons, but I’m not too worried because I have a college degree. I try to get a job stocking shelves at a local grocery store. Under usual circumstances, I’m overqualified, but with the felony on my record, I know my options are limited. Hoping that my degree will outweigh the felony, I think I have a decent shot. Turns out my local grocer doesn’t hire felons. No sweat, there are plenty of other places. Maybe I go over to my preferred fast-food chain. Same result. Now it’s been a month and I’m running low on cash. My rent is kind of expensive because prior to my arrest I had a middle-class job and could afford it. Now, with my new substantially lower income, I’ll need to find a cheaper apartment. I visit a place I know that’s on the other side of town, but they run a background check and I’m dinged. “Sorry, sir, but we can’t approve your application because your background check disqualified you”. So now I’m facing a situation where I have no job, and I may not have a place to live. I know I’m trying to get my act together, but I also know I’ll be evicted if I can’t make a little money. I know before my arrest I could always come up with some discretionary income by selling marijuana. So I turn back to my old customers and one afternoon I’m pulled over, again. At this point I’ve violated my probation, I’m facing new charges, and now I have no money to fight the case. Looks like serious jail time.
And that situation happens all the time. Once you find yourself in the cycle of probation and incarceration, it can be impossible to find a way out. In Georgia, unless you meet a narrow set of guidelines, a felony is permanent. That means from now until Georgia law changes, you can expect to face barriers to employment, housing, government assistance, voting (if you’re still on probation or parole), professional licenses, etc….
So like it or not, a felony on your record is just a prolonged death sentence.
And these exact sentiments are what were deeply buried in Mr. Brooks’ words. As the country watched the video of his murder by Atlanta PD, the societal discourse often falls back to “well he shouldn’t have resisted” or “he shouldn’t have ran”…..
But here’s the pressing question: have YOU ever felt that level of desperation? Have YOU ever been in a position where no matter how hard you tried to better yourself or take steps forward, the system kept you constrained in a cycle of poverty? What if YOU had to live the remainder of your life based on one decision from your past? Let that sink in – one decision to determine a human life.
So maybe you’re reading this, and now you think, “Okay, I hear you, so what do we do?” The good news is, the answer already exists!
In an attempt to combat crowded jails, and to alleviate the aforementioned probation numbers, Georgia began utilizing Accountability Courts in 2012. Accountability Courts are an alternative sentencing method where participants are given services in lieu of punishment. Georgia broadly operates 7 accountability courts, including Felony/Drug, Mental Health, Veterans Treatment, DUI/Drug, Family Treatment, Juvenile Drug, and Juvenile Mental Health. In a study conducted by The Carl Vinson Institute of Government, researchers found that ~1,700 Accountability Court graduates created over $38 million in economic benefits to the state. This breaks down to a $22,000 economic benefit per graduate! In contrast, the same study found that it cost the state (Georgia) roughly $20,000 per person for a typical prosecution & subsequent incarceration. Some quick math will tell you that those same ~1,700 people, who brought $38 million dollars in economic benefits to the state, would have cost taxpayers $34 million dollars to prosecute & incarcerate.
Let’s stop and sit with that for a moment.
$38 million dollars in benefits vs. $34 million in costs.
And this is where RED comes in! At RED we give our participants the tools to increase their social, civic, and financial literacies. But more importantly, we provide them with a MENTOR, and if they successfully complete the programming, we restrict (expunge) their record. So that scenario we laid out earlier about barriers to entry in jobs, housing, etc…
That doesn’t exist for our participants.
Our graduates leave the program free of the felony charge and armed with new knowledge, skills, and abilities. And just like the participants in the Accountability Court research, our graduates immediately begin providing value into their respective communities, alleviating the tax-payer of a burdensome incarceration fee. In fact, when comparing RED to the Accountability Court programs in the Carl Vinson study mentioned above, RED is an even smarter fiscal choice. Based on data from our five years in existence, RED is able to provide our programming at a rate of roughly $5,000 per program participant.
Not only is this markedly cheaper than prosecution and incarceration, it provides better and self-sustaining, outcomes. In Georgia, the recidivism rate typically hovers around 50%. (This figure is often disputed. The state claims it is closer to 30%, but when combining jail and prison populations, and looking at historical trends, 50% is a more accurate estimate.) Since our inception in 2015, RED has been able to operate our program with a 10-15% recidivism rate.
So to reiterate, not only does RED provide a smaller burden to the tax-payer, it is providing better outcomes for its participants and safer communities throughout the state. When compared to probation, this truly is a no-brainer.