Corrections Reform Isn't Just About Cutting Prison Populations

Marc Mauer

Marc Mauer

Population data just released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) show a continued modest decline in the number of people supervised in U.S. correctional systems, averaging a 1 percent decrease annually from 2007 to 2014.

This reduction is somewhat greater than the decline in the prison population for this period, and in large part it reflects changes in the number of people under probation supervision. While in recent years there has been an increasing focus on challenging mass incarceration, less attention has been devoted to examining corrections populations overall. The new BJS report underscores the importance of adding this dimension to a reform strategy.

The overall decline in corrections populations is encouraging but, as with the prison population figures, it's clear that the national trends remain quite modest. A 2013 analysis of The Sentencing Project found that at the previous year's rate of decarceration, which remains the greatest thus far, it would take 88 years to reduce the prison population down to where it was in 1980.

Similar estimates could be developed for probation and parole today.

The national data are useful, but they also can obscure the variation among the states in corrections policy and allocation of resources. Like incarceration rates, community supervision rates vary widely across the country. The rate of community supervision on probation or parole ranges from a low of 610 per 100,000 in Maine to a high of 3,110 per 100,000 in Idaho. (BJS also reports a dramatic rate of 6,430 in Georgia, but notes that the figure is less precise than in other states due to the possibility of double-counting.)

There are several causes of this variation. A high rate of community supervision can be a function of policy choices to emphasize probation and alternative sentencing over incarceration. For example, Minnesota incarcerates at less than half the national rate, while employing community supervision at a rate one-third greater than average.

In contrast, policy decisions to produce a “tough” corrections system can result in high rates of supervision across the board. Texas, for example, maintains a rate of incarceration 36 percent above the national average, but also a community supervision rate 33% above average.

A high rate of community supervision can also reflect how probation is structured. In Rhode Island, a state with strong corrections leadership and a commitment to non-incarcerative sentencing, much of the explanation for high supervision rates relates to the length of probation terms. A recent analysis by the Council of State Governments found that individuals leaving a correctional institution in that state are placed on probation terms lasting six years, three times the national average. Further, 80 percent of the current probation population has been on supervision for more than a year—thus past the point at which recidivism would have been most likely to occur.

The consequences of such policies are quite significant.

First, unnecessarily high rates of community supervision drain resources from where they are most needed. With the aid of risk assessment tools, probation and parole officials are increasingly seeking to target interventions to those individuals at high risk of failure. Such efforts are hampered if supervision resources and services are allocated to probationers who are likely to succeed in any case.

Second, excessive use of probation—placing too many people on probation or for too long—creates a slippery path toward incarceration. As former New York City probation commissioners Vincent Schiraldi and Michael Jacobson have written, probation supervision for low risk people “can serve as a trip wire to unnecessarily revoke and incarcerate.”

Finally, high rates of community supervision often are accompanied by disproportionate racial effects. Criminal justice policies in Rhode Island have created a system in which one of every six adult black men in the state is on probation supervision. Disparities such as these around the nation can have substantial effects on prospects for employment, housing, voting, and other measures necessary for community integration.

Fortunately, the national discussion on addressing mass incarceration is increasingly incorporating a broad examination of correctional supervision, with many leaders in probation and parole seeking to move toward a more focused and effective approach to supervision. In New York City, probation leaders enacted policy changes in recent years that reduced the number of people under supervision with no adverse effects on public safety.

Key elements in this shift included:

  • increasing the early discharge rate from 3 percent to 18 percent;
  • working with the state legislature to enable judges to impose probation terms between 3-5 years for most felonies, rather than being limited to the previous term of 5 years;
  • expanding the use of kiosk reporting for those individuals doing well while under supervision.

Just as it is encouraging to see that a handful of states have reduced their prison populations by more than 20 percent in recent years, so too can we identify jurisdictions which view community supervision populations as a focal point for reform.

Similarly, as the National Research Council concluded that policy changes, not crime rates, were the major factor producing high rates of incarceration, we can also see how this plays out in regard to community supervision populations. As the justice reform movement evolves, we will, hopefully, see increasingly focused attention on the connection between these components of the justice system.

Marc Mauer is the Executive Director of The Sentencing Project and the author of Race to Incarcerate. He welcomes comments from readers.

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