Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Report · August 2017

California Probation in the Era of Reform

Viet Nguyen, Ryken Grattet, and Mia Bird

Supported with funding from the National Institute of Justice

Recent reforms significantly altered the role of probation in California. In 2011, the state enacted public safety realignment, which shifted the management of lower-level felons from state prison and parole to county jail and probation. As part of this effort, realignment tasked probation departments with the supervision of certain offenders who were previously the responsibility of state parole agencies. These and other policy changes have placed considerable demands on local corrections systems.

This report uses newly available data to describe the changing characteristics of individuals under probation supervision in California. Examining data from 12 counties from October 2011 to October 2015, we find:

  • Reforms shifted probation caseloads toward more serious offenders. Under realignment, the number of new probation cases increased steadily due to the added responsibility of managing two types of realigned offenders: those released from state prison on post-release community supervision and those given “split sentences,” who serve part of their sentence in county jail and then receive mandatory supervision. While Proposition 47 in 2014 caused new felony and misdemeanor probation cases to decline dramatically, it further concentrated the probation caseload on realigned individuals who have committed more serious offenses.
  • Jail bookings are common among the probation population, especially for realigned offenders. Nearly half (46.7%) of people who started probation supervision were booked into county jail within their first year. Booking rates were highest among realigned offenders. These same individuals were also more likely to enter jail multiple times in the year after they started supervision. Further, realigned offenders stayed in jail custody longer than traditional felony and misdemeanor probation cases.
  • Racial disparities in probation are most evident among African Americans. African Americans make up 7.9 percent of the general population but were 22.9 percent of those entering probation supervision. Overall, the shares of Latinos and whites under probation supervision were similar to their shares of the general population, while Asian Americans made up a much smaller proportion of new probation cases relative to their share of the population.

These findings demonstrate important changes in the composition of the probation population and reflect a policy shift toward refocusing correctional resources on the most serious offenders. Future research will need to consider the implications of these changes for public safety and the overall cost-effectiveness of the corrections system. Counties may also need to adopt different policies and practices in response to the changing probation population. Indeed, many counties have expanded their reentry services or are using new tools to identify and prioritize individuals who pose a greater likelihood of reoffending’such efforts may be key to lowering the state’s stubbornly high recidivism rates.


Criminal Justice