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How text messages can help California reduce parole and probation violations

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 300,00 people in California were on parole or probation in 2019. And in 2020, about 11% of people being sent to California prisons were being locked up due to technical violations of the terms of their parole or probation.

Even small changes to how criminal justice supervision programs are administered can have important effects and help achieve criminal justice reform goals of reducing recidivism and the prison population. Simply sending text message reminders can reduce missed parole and probation meetings by nearly 30 percent, a new Reason Foundation policy brief finds. Reducing the number of missed appointments could help keep some people from being sent back to jail or prison for technical violations.

Probation and parole are intended to provide a more constructive alternative to incarceration by allowing offenders to be supervised within their communities. However, some research suggests that community supervision programs may be contributing to the problem of mass incarceration in unintended ways.

Individuals on parole and probation must adhere to strict rules and procedures. Behaviors that violate these rules, but are not criminal, are considered technical violations. Technical violations include missing appointments with supervising officers, failing drug tests, and violating curfews.

One of the most common and important requirements of individuals on parole and probation is regular contact with a supervising officer assigned to their case through in-person meetings. Supervisors commonly provide employment updates at these meetings, receive support and treatment, and are tested for recent drug use. Higher-risk supervisees are typically required to have more contact through more frequent meetings.

Meanwhile, supervision agencies are frequently underfunded, and supervising officers are overloaded with cases. As the number of people on parole and probation has grown over recent decades, supervising agencies and the officers they employ have been required to do more with less. The coordination of supervision meetings is one significant inefficiency.

A relatively minor reform that focuses on reducing the frequency of missed appointments for probation and parole supervision has considerable promise: sending text messages reminding supervisees to attend upcoming meetings. From picking up prescription medications to reminding us of a doctor’s appointment, text message reminders are commonplace in everyday life for most Californians. Recently, some governments have experimented with sending text message reminders to improve court attendance with positive results.

In a randomized experiment involving text-message reminders for upcoming parole and probation meetings in Arkansas, a sample of individuals on parole and probation were randomly assigned to one of four experimental groups. Three groups received text message reminders for upcoming meetings at different time intervals. The fourth group served as a control group and did not receive any text messages. The group that received a text message one day before their upcoming meeting had 21% fewer canceled meetings and 29% fewer missed appointments relative to the control group, the Reason Foundation brief shows.

These findings suggest that even minor changes, like sending text message reminders, can significantly impact individuals within the criminal justice system. To the extent that missed appointments lead to technical parole and probation violations and increase the burden placed on supervising officers, text-message reminders could be a low-cost improvement. The program only costs the Arkansas Division of Community Corrections about two cents per text message.

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