Not all criminal justice reforms require massive legislative changes and fights with law enforcement unions. A new study finds that better administrative communication with people on parole and probation in Arkansas helped them make their meetings with supervising officers. Missing fewer meetings results in a lower chance of being charged with a technical violation that could land them in jail or prison.

Technical violations of probation and parole are a significant challenge in overseeing alternatives to incarceration in America. These violations don’t involve the commission of new crimes but rather violating the various bureaucratic rules that are part of their release conditions. These violations get people sent to jail, even though violators seldom present any threat to public safety.

Can simply sending text message reminders help stop this from happening? That’s the focus of a study highlighted in a new policy brief by the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes this site). The study is titled “Addressing Mass Supervision in the United States: How Text Message Reminders Can Help Reduce Technical Violations of Community Supervision.”

As a baseline, the study notes that in 2019, only about 53 percent of people on probation completed their term that year. Another 13 percent of people under supervision had their parole revoked and ended up incarcerated again. Of those, 40 percent were incarcerated due to technical violations, not new crimes. The report summary observes:

Despite their importance to effective supervision, office visits are often difficult to coordinate. Supervisees frequently miss appointments due to work, education, or difficulty securing transportation. Missed appointments and time spent coordinating meetings represent opportunities to improve the use of scarce time by parole and probation officers. Eliminating these inefficiencies would allow officers to focus their time and attention on higher-risk supervisees in greater need of intensive supervision.

The result is thousands of people going back to jail for missing meetings or other problems or mistakes that could perhaps be fixed through measures other than imprisonment (which, as a reminder, is an expensive burden on taxpayers). In Arkansas, more than a third of people sent back to jail within three years of being released on parole were sent back for technical violations, not new criminal offenses. And so the Arkansas Community Corrections agency partnered with Marquis Software to experiment with text message reminders. Starting in the summer of 2018 Marquis randomly assigned people in the Arkansas parole and probation system into four groups. Three of them received text message reminders of upcoming appointments at different intervals. The fourth group, the control group, did not get any text message reminders.