The punitive approach taken by community corrections agencies around the U.S. has made them major drivers of mass incarceration, a New York conference on justice reform was told this week.
Releasing more individuals under supervisory conditions of probation or parole was meant to reduce America’s high prison population. But insufficient funding, over-zealous officers, and bureaucratic red tape have produced the opposite result, according to participants in a panel at John Jay College’s “Smart on Crime” conference, which ended Wednesday.
Violation of any one of the supervisory conditions—ranging from prohibition against firearms possession to travel restrictions—can result in re-incarceration, said Vincent Schiraldi, who served as Commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation between 2010-2014.
“That’s why 40% of people get arrested on parole,” he told the panel. “Half of the intakes to prison are violations of parole and probation.”
Making things worse, the lack of funding has forced some agencies to assess fees for their services—which further complicates the lives of those under supervised release, the panel was told.
“The payment (request) is dangled in front of your face like a carrot,” said Cheryl Wilkins, a former parolee.
“For instance, say you want to get a driver’s license (which you need) to help you stay out of prison —you would have to pay your supervision fee regularly.”
Paying fees while under supervision by community correction agencies is “absurd,” said Wilkins, who now serves as Senior Program Manager at Columbia University’s Center for Justice).
“These (corrections) systems hinder your progress.”
Schiraldi, who recently left a research fellowship post at Harvard to join the Columbia center, agreed that such fees and other red tape “skew incentives” for the formerly incarcerated to qualify for early release.
“If you were a black man facing three to four months of parole as opposed to a year in prison, you would take the year in prison,” he said.
Nevertheless, the number of Americans now under some form of community supervision—about four million—is twice the number of those behind bars, Schiraldi pointed out, adding that this should make reform of the system a priority.
“If we didn’t exist, no one would invent us,” said Schiraldi.
Bruce Western, departing faculty chair of the program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, agreed.
“Incarceration should never be the fault response to violations,” he said. “It should be eliminated for violation of parole.”
Community corrections agencies’ power to arrest people should be used minimally, advised Western.
“If you have power, you are at risk of the abuse of power,” he said.
John E. Wetzel, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Corrections, noted “the pretty damn low bar” society has for formerly incarcerated individuals.
Instead, community corrections agencies use spurious concerns about “public safety” as excuses to send more individuals back to prison—especially poor people and people of color, he said.
Megan Hadley is a news intern at The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.