Probation and parole—collectively known as community supervision—too often contribute to mass incarceration by sending people back to prison for technical violations. More than 50 elected prosecutors and 90 current and former probation and parole leaders issued a statement last week calling for reforms that would make community supervision “smaller, less punitive, and more equitable, restorative, and hopeful.”
Community supervision has increased dramatically over the past 40 years. The number of people under probation or parole supervision has more than tripled since 1980 to about 4.4 million people under supervision in the U.S. each day. That’s nearly double the number of people incarcerated in jails and prisons nationwide.
And while one in 58 American adults is under supervision, one in 23 Black adults are subject to the onerous requirements of probation or parole that experts describe as a tripwire that can trigger “a vicious cycle of reincarceration for people under supervision for administrative rule violations that would rarely lead someone not under supervision into prison.”
Supervision is too punitive, supervision professionals say. Instead of helping people reintegrate into the community, governments impose harsh conditions that focus on suppression, surveillance, and control, such as barring contact with family members with records, requiring people to report to supervision offices while also keeping a job, restricting where they can live, and demanding payment of fees for everything from drug tests to appointments with their parole officers.
The system sets people up to fail, former federal prosecutor Miriam Aroni Krinsky and former commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation Vincent Schiraldi wrote for USA Today. “Individuals under community supervision are one missed appointment, one curfew violation or one late-fee payment away from a technical violation and possible imprisonment.”
Almost a quarter of people entering prison in 2017 were incarcerated for a technical probation or parole violation, not a new offense, costing taxpayers $2.8 billion annually. Technical violations target communities of color, Krinsky and Schiraldi note, exacerbating structural racism, substance use, housing insecurity, and mental health issues.
Data from 2018 showed that Black people were 2.6 times as likely as white people to be on probation and nearly four times as likely to be on parole. While Black people comprised about 12% of the population in 2008 and 2018, in both years they made up about 30% of people on probation and 38% of those on parole. Black and Latino people remain on probation and parole longer than similarly situated white people, research shows.
Research has found that Black people are 50 to 100% more likely to be charged with parole violations, even after controlling for relevant demographic and legal factors. Similar disparities were uncovered in probation violation charges for Black people as compared to white people, and Black people are also more likely to be returned to prison for a parole violation.
Prosecutors and supervision professionals are calling for eliminating incarceration for technical parole and probation violations and reducing reincarceration for low-level new offenses by those under supervision.
Recognizing that community supervision has ballooned because people are being supervised who should not be and are being kept on supervision for far too long, they also suggest downsizing probation and parole. Professionals suggest diverting people from probation and parole who don’t need supervision, and capping probation and parole terms at a more reasonable length—generally no more than 18 months.
Many of these reforms—such as reducing home visits to only high-risk individuals and suspending in-office meetings and drug tests—have been implemented out of necessity in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Research suggests that these reduced levels of community supervision could be maintained after the pandemic with no adverse effect on public safety.