by Anthony W. Accurso
A new report from PrisonPolicy.org was released with the purpose of informing prison policymakers and the public about the true costs of the criminal justice system, which includes both prisons and various forms of community supervision – probation, parole, supervised release, and involuntary civil commitment. The report highlights how changes to different forms of supervision can be more efficient, as measured by decreases in cost accompanied by increases in community safety.
When the public discusses prisons and the justice system, the conversation often leaves out how the forms of community supervision are extensions of that system and how they encompass a vastly larger portion of society. People are rarely truly free after leaving prison, and many remain under the threat of immediate reincarceration based on minor, technical violations for years – sometimes decades.
The report tallied every person in prison or jail, as well as under some kind of community corrections, and notable statistics were highlighted. Overall, there are almost twice as many people on community corrections (3.7 million) in U.S. jurisdictions as there are in custody (1.9 million). In total, one in 61 people in the U.S. are under some form of correctional control.
Some states are notoriously punitive. Louisiana has the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of incarceration (the percentage of its residents in prison or jail), followed by Oklahoma and Arkansas.
Punitive control is less obvious in other states. When the total control rate (the percentage of a state’s residence either in prison or jail or under some form of community corrections) is considered, Rhode Island rivals that of Louisiana because of its large probation system.
Georgia is just behind Arkansas and Oklahoma in the rate of incarceration, but it has “a probation rate that eclipses all other states.”
Alabama is also notoriously punitive and incarcerates its residents above the national average rate. Yet, a resident of Minnesota is just as likely as an Alabama resident to be under correctional control; they are simply less likely to be in prison.
New York and New Jersey are similar states with closely linked populations, yet 1,706 of 100,000 New Jersey residents are under correctional control compared to 811 per 100,000 in New York.
Massachusetts and Utah both subject a similar portion of their state’s residents to correctional control, though Utah incarcerates a third more people (39% compared to 28%) than Massachusetts.
Following the booms in prison population driven by “the war on drugs” and the violent crime uptick in the late 1980s and early 1990s, some states reformed probation and parole systems to reduce prison populations. Populations under community corrections rose – then peaked in 2007 – with the total supervised population dropping in 2021 to its lowest level since 1994.
This drop coincided with both the financial crisis which occurred in 2008 - 2009, but also with the “smart on crime” initiative of the Obama administration, which modified “tough on crime” by reducing punishment while maintaining safety using data-driven modifications to recommended sentences.
Individual states can sometimes buck the national trends. In the five years preceding the report, probation populations shrunk 19% nationwide. But in the “same five years, the number of people on probation grew 35% in Arkansas and 13% in Kentucky.” Two large states, California and Pennsylvania, together accounted for a quarter of the national drop, “cutting over 80,000 people from probation from 2016 to 2021.”
The report cautions readers not to infer too much from changes in supervised populations alone, because numerous factors could be driving these changes. If the population is dropping, it could be that states are letting people off early or tightening restrictions in a way that makes returning to prison more likely. If the population is increasing, more people may be getting diverted from incarceration to probation. But this means more people are under systems where their freedom is limited, and they will suffer the collateral harms of community corrections.
Every major jurisdiction has its own rules for people under community corrections despite the universally stated goals of diversion (probation) or safe reintegration (parole and supervised release). This leads to different systems having different quirks or features – some of which are more efficient than others.
Many states use probation and parole as cost-cutting measures. Though numbers vary, probation and parole cost drastically less than incarceration. It costs approximately $44,000 per year to incarcerate each federal prisoner, while federal supervision costs a mere $4,000 per person per year.
Despite these savings, some states make it difficult for supervisees to succeed, imposing “unaffordable fees [and] burdensome conditions,” then resorting to “the use of incarceration for noncriminal violations.” Overall, “less than half (44%) of people who ‘exited’ parole or probation in 2021 did so after successfully completing their supervision terms,” and “over 230,000 people shifted from community supervision into a prison or a jail.”
Thus, probation and parole, which are intended to reduce prison populations, “are often pathways into incarceration,” defeating their stated purpose. Putting people back in prison can be devastating to both the supervisees and their families, and the “consequences are steep: jail time means job loss, housing instability, difficulty caring for children and elders, interruptions in healthcare, and a host of other collateral consequences.”
This population is often already struggling and marginalized. They “are poorer” and “in poorer health” than the general population and are disproportionately Black and brown. Women, who are more often sentenced to probation terms than men, must juggle new responsibilities with existing ones, such as obtaining child care when required to attend therapy or drug-use surveillance appointments. All supervisees suffer from a higher rate of mental illness and substance use disorders than the general population, and women are frequently victims themselves, still struggling with trauma.
Community correction systems can be made more efficient, increasing the safety of communities and saving money for taxpayers. Some states have already shown which reforms are more efficient, and responsible lawmakers in other states would do well to learn from these best practices. The report notes several successes and makes recommendations for improvements.
New York City is an excellent example of reforms done well. The city reformed its probation system twice, once in the 1990s and again in the 2010s, reducing its population by 60% between 1996 and 2014. Despite “reducing its population, violent crime dropped 57% over the same period.”
California limited “most misdemeanor probation to one year, and most felony probation to two years, reducing the probation population by 33% and saving the state a projected 2.1 billion dollars.” Vermont implemented “presumptive discharge” for certain offenses, allowing some supervisees to serve half the stated probation term and be automatically freed if they commit no serious violations. Georgia “clarified procedures around early termination,” giving well-behaved supervisees a clearer path to freedom. Texas, a state known for revoking driver’s licenses and professional licenses upon felony conviction, allows some people to have these reinstated upon completion of supervision. Massachusetts and Oregon both “eliminated probation fees.”
Broadly, the report recommends prioritizing the “highest-need cases” and eliminating probation for the rest. Combining this with the elimination of supervision fees and using non-carceral diversions – community service, therapy, or halfway-house placement– to handle minor violations of supervision will save states money while improving safety.
The report also suggests diverting at least some of the savings toward mitigating barriers to reentry experienced by the many people processed through the system. People under supervision face “unnecessarily high barriers” to “securing education, employment, housing, and other vital resources, including medical or mental health treatment and aid programs.” When probation is focused on the highest-need cases, these people will benefit from greater investment in mitigating these barriers.
Parole should also be made “the rule, not the exception.” The federal prison system eliminated parole as part of its sentencing reform package in the 1980s, replacing it with a fixed early release date based on good conduct. Too many states condition parole eligibility on exceptional conduct, keeping people in prison longer than necessary to improve community safety.
Parole should be assumed after a set percentage of time is served, with only repeat and violent offenders who continuously fail to abide by prison rules being denied parole. Further, the report recommends that whenever and wherever parole is granted, states should reduce its length, conditions, and collateral consequences.
Several states have taken steps in the right direction. Much of New York’s safety gains can be attributed to eliminating reincarceration for non-criminal violations of parole. People on parole, especially after a long period of incarceration, are going to make mistakes. Forcing them to start over after minor violations wastes taxpayer money and increases the time it takes for them to return to being productive citizens.
The report also criticizes certain illogical conditions frequently imposed on supervisees. For instance, many states require them to refrain from having contact with anyone else convicted of a felony. In a nation where so many people have criminal convictions, and former criminals work to benefit society, this eliminates the most effective job search tool available: networking.
California also expanded its Elderly Parole program. It recognized the truth that people “age out” of criminality and saved the state from having to provide healthcare to individuals who cost the most.
Louisiana expanded parole eligibility for certain offenses and reduced the length of time many offenders must wait to become eligible. A Maine legislative commission recommended restoring discretionary parole after over 40 years without this reform.
Community safety is an issue which is polling high among voters looking ahead to the 2024 election. A data-driven approach to community corrections can save states money while simultaneously improving safety. This may require us to resist our impulse to simply punish people more vigorously, and we must reconsider our beliefs about what “works.”
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