How to End the Era of Mass Supervision

Probation and parole started out in the 1800s as rehabilitation efforts that tempered punishment with mercy. With the advent of the War on Drugs in the 1970s, rehabilitation and mercy became dirty words, and community supervision morphed into community corrections, emulating its big brother the prison as one more punitive response to poverty.

David Muhammad, executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform

Those of us witnessing this up close have had enough of managing too many people with too few resources resulting in their unnecessary and inequitable incarceration. Many of us have done what we can to right that ship and now, as a group, we are calling for the systems we run “to be substantially downsized, less punitive, and more hopeful, equitable and restorative.”

Let’s unpack that a moment, starting with downsizing. There are 4.5 million people, or one out of every 55 adults in the United States, under probation or parole supervision at any given time. In forming EXiT: Executives Transforming Probation and Parole, we wrote:

Probation and parole have grown far too large because people are being supervised who should not be and are being kept on supervision for far too long … Far from being an aid to community reintegration as originally designed, community supervision too often serves as a tripwire to imprisonment, creating a vicious cycle of reincarceration for people under supervision for administrative rule violations that would rarely lead someone not under supervision into prison.

Over the past four decades, the number of people in prison and jail and the number of people on probation and parole have grown five-fold. This raises questions as to whether probation, designed as a front-end alternative to incarceration, or parole, created as a back-end release valve to prison crowding and a reward for good behavior, are really alternatives to incarceration or whether they simply widen the net of social control.

New York Youth Justice Probation Columbia
Vincent Schiraldi, co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab and former commissioner of New York City Probation

Which brings us to the idea of “less punitive and more hopeful.” As more people were placed on community supervision for longer periods, resources never kept up. Although twice as many people are under community supervision as are in prison or jail, nine out of 10 correctional dollars goes to incarceration. This places probation and parole officers in risk-averse environments with too few resources, mushrooming caseloads, a stingier social safety net, all lodged in a society that, since the 1970s, has grown less inclined to house, educate or employ people with criminal records. While policymakers have been reluctant to provide services for people who have broken the law, one resource they have made abundantly available is prisons.

The result: one out of four people who entered prison nationally in 2017 were imprisoned not for a new crime, but because of a technical violation of community supervision like missing an appointment or testing positive for drugs. This cost U.S. taxpayers $2.8 billion, money that could have been spent on the kind of services and supports that people need to succeed in the community.

Efforts to combat mass supervision have been initiated around the country. California has been an early leader – in 2009, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) estimated that 40 percent of new prison admissions in the prior year were revocations from probation. The next year, California implemented Senate Bill 678, which provided financial incentives to county probation departments to reduce the number of people on probation being sent to prison.

In the first year of implementation, the state probation violation rate declined by 23 percent. The California Department of Finance estimated that because of this reduction, 6,182 fewer people on probation entered state prison in 2010, generating a savings of $179 million.

Community supervision administrators must work with other system actors to reform their systems. Last month, San Francisco District Attorney Candidate Chesa Boudin offered an example of a potential partnership when he announced a sweeping package of probation and parole reforms he would enact if elected, joining the ranks of progressive DAs that have reformed community supervision in places as diverse as Dallas, Philadelphia and Brooklyn. Boudin’s Pathways for Success plan would focus probation on people who need to be supervised only for as long as necessary; incentivize good performance on community supervision with early discharge; encourage program participation for people in prison by supporting their parole release; and reinvest prison savings in programs that work.

At EXiT, we believe there is a better way, and that if we shrink the number of people under supervision and reduce how many people we are incarcerating for low-level misbehavior, we can capture the savings to provide resources that will improve public safety and outcomes for people on community supervision.

David Muhammad is executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform and former chief probation officer of Alameda County, California. Vincent Schiraldi is co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab and former commissioner of New York City Probation.

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