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Dosage Probation: Enhancing Public Safety by Rethinking the Structure of Probation Sentences.

Those of us who work in criminal justice cannot go long without hearing questions such as "When are you folks going to reform your probationary strategy?" We are heartened somewhat by the meme shifting from "mass incarceration" to "probation reform", yet many of us pause and ask ourselves what is broken about probation? The answer, our reform minded friends are quick to point out, is the numbers they cite: 4.5 million people in this country are considered to be on some form of supervision from parole after prison to probation supervision in local communities. Critics of our common probation supervision programs tell us that there are more people on probation in this country than the population of Kentucky. They go on to point to a tripling of probationers in the last 30 years. These numbers are apparently so shocking to some that they demand change-often any program that will shrink the numbers. But why?

Recent census statistics show that America has a population of 328.2 million people. Yet in one year alone, 2017, Uniform Crime Report (UCR) data indicates that there were 1.2 million violent crimes and 7.7 million property crimes (including home burglaries). In just one year in the United States there were 8.9 million crimes reported. In years before 2017, there has been a steady rise in crimes along with the steady rise in population. Therefore, it seems quite plausible to find 4.5 million Americans not in prison but on community based supervision programs in order to protect society and hold offenders accountable.

Having a bit more than 1 percent of our national population on probation for millions of crimes committed annually does not necessarily shock the conscious or even give rise to a clarion call for change. However, there are in many legislatures around the country bills to limit the use of probation, time spent on it or in the words of Professor Phelps,

"[I]instead of diverting people from prison, probation often 'widens the net' by expanding formal supervision for low-level offenses that would otherwise garner little to no punishment. This matters because the very fact of being on probation puts individuals under heightened scrutiny, restricts their behavior, and eases the path to imprisonment." Notwithstanding Professor Phelps'suggestion that we perhaps forgo supervising criminal offenders in lieu of jail, public safety insists on at least some accountability for offenders so that they may reconsider reoffending again. Perhaps then, instead of all-or-nothing probation alternatives, we consider an innovative and promising probation supervision program called Dosage Probation.

Washington County Minnesota Community Corrections is one of two sites in the nation working on a new way of delivering probation services to adult probationers. This model, called dosage probation, is a new initiative from the National Institute of Corrections (NIC). Dosage probation relies on a client's internal motivation to change their behavior. The probationer can shorten the time they are under probation supervision by actively participating and completing programming to reduce the likelihood of their future criminal behavior.


A probationer is sentenced to a term of probation, say five years. At the first meeting with their probation officer, the client participates in a risk assessment that scores them on how likely they are to commit another crime. This assessment is an actuarial tool similar to what the insurance and banking industry uses. Each level of risk has a defined number of "targeted dosage intervention hours" (referred to as dosage hours) the probationer must complete in order to be discharged from probation. The bar for what counts towards these hours is high making the standard quite rigorous. Once the probationer has served at least one year of probation, has completed the dosage hours along with their conditions of probation, they are granted a discharge from their sentence. If the probationer chooses not to participate in the dosage program, they remain on probation for the duration of their sentence. Targeted dosage hours must address the top five areas that lead to criminal behavior. These areas are: 1) criminal thinking patterns and values, 2) poor decisionmaking skills, 3) anti-social peers, 4) family/marital stressors and 5) chemical abuse. Probationers are referred to program providers who have been identified by the Community Corrections Department that offer research based services directly related to these areas. Probation Officers are also trained to administer cognitive-behavioral interventions which count toward the required dosage hours.

Each probationer is held accountable to fully participate-in all aspects of programming. If a probationer does not participate or fails to attend, credit will not be given toward their dosage hours. Sex offenses, domestic abuse and felony level driving under the influence cases are not eligible to participate in dosage probation. A sentencing judge may also choose to remove the option for any case based on the individual circumstances surrounding the offense.


Dosage probation attempts to tap into a probationer's motivation to get off of supervision. Tapping into this motivation gets clients to actively participate in the programming they need to reduce the likelihood of future-criminal justice system involvement. Research indicates this kind of targeted intervention enhances public safety and reduces criminal justice systems costs making a "win-win" situation tor both offenders and tax payers.

Moreover, and perhaps more important, dosage probation puts the onus for changing criminal behavior on the offender rather than the probation agent tracking down the offender to determine whether he/she is following directives. Essentially, dosage posits to the offender how long they wish to be on probation supervision. If the offender is motivated to change then they are given the opportunity to prove it by completing cognitive skills lessons, therapy, chemical dependency treatment, anger management or other criminogenic factors that are identified through risk assessment.

Currently, Washington County, Minnesota, and Napa County, California, are two jurisdictions implementing this model with guidance from the National Institute of Corrections. For more information, please contact Terry Thomas, Deputy Director-Washington County Community Corrections at or Pete Orput, Washington County Attorney at pete.orput@co.

By PETE ORPUT, Washington County (MN) Attorney
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Author:Orput, Pete
Publication:Prosecutor, Journal of the National District Attorneys Association
Date:Jul 1, 2019
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