Are Jail Sanctions More Punitive Than Community-Based Punishments? An Examination into the Perceived Severity of Alternative Sanctions in Community Supervision
The use of sanctions in community supervision has received considerable attention in recent years. Fueled in large part by the attention given to the swift, certain, and fair (SCF) sanctioning model, many agencies have adopted sanctioning programs, which often rely heavily on the use of short-term jail incarceration. In addition to jail, there exist a number of alternative, community-based punishments that can be utilized to respond to instances of noncompliance, including enhanced drug testing and community service hours. Little is known, however, about how individuals perceive community-based sanctions compared with jail. This study addresses this issue by examining perceptions of sanctions among individuals under community supervision. Survey findings indicate that community-based punishments are not viewed as being substantially less punitive than jail incarceration. In addition, perceptions of sanction severity are influenced by a variety of individual, experiential, and supervision-level factors. The policy implications of the study findings are discussed.
The contrasting outcomes for the various SCF sanctioning models could be due to multiple factors, but one clear problem that lingers for sanctions imposed in any form within community corrections is that little guidance exists regarding how to utilize them most efficiently and effectively. Jail time has been a staple in most SCF manifestations, yet jail can pose a range of financial, psychological, and social costs detrimental to the individual that can negate its intended deterrent impact (Wodahl, Boman, & Garland, 2015). In many jurisdictions, jail space is severely limited, and the operational expenses necessary to confine people even for brief periods can be formidable, making it often an impractical long-term sanctioning mechanism for SCF sites. Fortunately, a wide range of community-based sanctions are accessible in most correctional agencies, such as written assignments, enhanced drug testing, community service hours, and increased treatment participation (Wodahl, Garland, Culhane, & McCarty, 2011). Importantly, Wodahl et al.’s (2015) recent study found that community-based sanctions are equally as effective as jail sanctions in motivating successful outcomes for probationers and parolees, suggesting that community sanctions can be administered more extensively in SCF models.
Despite the logistical and financial benefits and reduced intrusiveness of incorporating community-based sanctions into SCF models, the question lingers regarding how to best calibrate their implementation so that each sanction generates an appropriate punitive impact. Answering this question naturally requires understanding how the severities of specific sanctions are perceived by those placed on community supervision. At this point, only one study by Wodahl, Ogle, Kadleck, and Gerow (2013) has explored this issue. From the perspectives of adult felons assigned to Wyoming’s Intensive Supervision Program, these researchers found that several community-based sanctions applicable during community supervision were perceived similarly in punitive force to jail time. Wodahl and colleagues also showed that specific sanctions can generate varying perceived severities depending on the characteristics of the sanction recipient. Although shedding light on perceptions of SCF-relevant sanctions, the Wyoming study was limited in its generalizability because it focused on individuals receiving intensive supervision and living in mostly rural-oriented areas. In response, the current project seeks to advance the literature with a replication and extension of the Wodahl et al. study by (a) examining a more diverse population assigned to varying supervision levels and residing in a more urban environment, (b) expanding the types of sanctions analyzed, and (c) delving into a broader range of possible influences on perceptions of sanctions.
Two alternative sanctions, community corrections and inpatient treatment, were viewed as being equally as punitive as spending time in jail. This is perhaps not surprising as both are similar to jail in that participants are removed from their living environment for the duration of the sanction. The finding that probationers perceive inpatient treatment to be equally punitive to jail-based incarceration is especially salient from a policy perspective. Discourse about responses to substance abuse behaviors in the criminal justice system often center on the need to treat versus the need to punish. However, both the Wodahl et al. (2013) and current study suggest that such debates are misleading. Treatment, although likely not undertaken with a desire to punish, clearly is not viewed as “soft” or as an “alternative to punishment” among community supervisees. This finding, coupled with recent research indicating that treatment responses to technical violations are more effective than punitive ones (Boman, Mowen, Wodahl, Miller, & Miller, in press; Morash, Kashy, Smith, & Cobbina, 2017), suggests that sanctioning programs that rely solely on jail sanctions, such as those founded on the original principles of the SCF model, may be misguided.
In all, the multivariate results might seem discouraging to policymakers hoping to develop elaborate predictive models or one-size-fits-all sanctioning guides for assigning community-level sanctions through an evidence-based framework. Importantly, the results do not undermine the validity of an SCF approach that includes community-based sanctions, but rather underscores the importance of carefully examining the perspectives of each individual client so that the most appropriate sanction can be administered. As with any focused-deterrence strategy, the severity component of SCF sanctioning needs to be experienced in a way that is proportionate to the wrongdoing. Our results indicate that the type and amount of community sanction necessary to fulfill a deterrent aim may vary substantially from person to person, and policymakers, supervisors, trainers, and ground-level practitioners must recognize this point to sanction successfully.