Probation Caps

Capping probation terms would save DC taxpayers millions of dollars in jail costs.

Nearly 560 people (8.1 percent) in DC who were on probation in 2022 were revoked to incarceration. Many people fail on probation because the sentence is too long, increasing the chances that someone will make a mistake or slip up. Nationally, after 18 months, most people on probation are not likely to re-offend and could have safely spent less time on supervision. However, in DC, one can be on probation for five years. Places like Kansas and Massachusetts have shorter average probation lengths than DC, and probation sentences in California were capped at two years for a felony and one year for a misdemeanor. California expects to save $2.1 million from implementing its probation caps.  Consistent with the District Task Force on Jails & Justice recommendations, DC should reduce the maximum probation terms to one year for a misdemeanor offense and two years for a felony offense.

What you need to know

Probation is an alternative to incarceration filled with tripwires.

Probation is a sentencing option either after incarceration or instead of incarceration, where the courts attempt to hold a person accountable while in their community. But this alternative can be extremely burdensome oftentimes filled with more barriers and challenges than being incarcerated–constant check-ins, drug tests, required classes, curfews, and travel restrictions. In DC, when someone is sentenced to probation, they are under the supervision of a staff member of the federal Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), which also supervises people released from prison. In 2022, there were 4,439 people on probation in DC – about nine out of 10 of whom are Black. DC’s elected officials have no oversight over CSOSA’s practice.

save & share ⤴

Long probation terms do not increase safety.

The longer the probation period, the more likely someone is to fail to complete probation. However, research shows that long supervision terms do not increase safety. In a comparative look at the length of probation and the likelihood of recidivism, Pew Charitable Trusts found that “a growing list of high-quality studies have shown that long probation sentences are not associated with lower recidivism rates.” Generally, if someone is re-arrested while on supervision, it usually happens within the first 18 months, making probation terms longer than two years a waste of time and money.

DC probation terms can last five years, but probation lengths are capped at less in other jurisdictions.

Someone can be on probation supervision in DC for up to five years. In practice, most judges stay below the statutory bar. CSOSA reported that most people on probation for both felony and misdemeanor offenses were under its supervision for 12 to 37 months. The American Law Institute recommended that probation terms be capped at three years for a felony and one year for a misdemeanor. The Pew Charitable Trusts showed that states like Louisiana (3 years), Oklahoma (2 years) have shorter maximum probation terms, and Massachusetts (9.9 months), Kansas  (9.3 months), and Florida (16.8 months) have shorter average probation terms than DC. Between 2000 and 2018, 22 states saw the average length of someone’s probation decline.

Longer probation sentences increase costs, but limiting sentence lengths could save millions.

California limits most misdemeanor probation sentences to one year and felony probation sentences to two years. The state is expected to save $2.1 billion by making this change. This will come by reducing the probation population and preventing people from entering prison or jail due to a technical violation. On average, the DC Department of Corrections spends $398 per person incarcerated per day. Per year, DC pays nearly $48,000 per year person for supervision violations. The DC Department of Corrections reported that about 346 people entered for a supervision violation in 2023. But, if just 100 of these intakes were prevented by limiting supervision lengths, DC could save between $3.2 to $3.3 million. 

Spent annually per person for supervision violations
$ 0


Our Solutions

DC should follow the recommendations of the DC District Task Force on Jails & Justice by:

  • Setting a maximum probation period of one year for a misdemeanor offense and two years for a felony offense.

special thanks

Pew Charitable Trusts ★ Prison Policy Initiative ★ Jessa Royer ★ REFORM Alliance ★ Vincent Schiraldi ★ Jason Ziedenberg

Last Updated on May 20, 2024.


1. The $398 figure was calculated by dividing the DOC’s total operating budget by the average daily population, and dividing that number by 365. Facts and Figures,  D.C. Dep’t of Corrs. (April 2024),   The operating budget as of April 2024 was $198,100,000. Id. at 2. The average daily population in the DOC was 1,727 people. Id. at 5. This is the same formula used by The District Task Force on Jails & Justice but with 2020 figures. See Our Transformation Starts Today, supra note 4, at 42.

 2. On average, in 2023, DOC spent $47,760 per man and $34,742 per woman per year incarcerated for supervision violations.  The $48,000 figure was calculated by multiplying the average cost per day times the average length of stay. Men and women incarcerated for supervision violations spend, on average, 120 and 89 days , respectively, in jail.