Justice Reform’s New Target: One in 55 Americans on Probation or Parole

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Photo by Mike Mozart via Flickr

The growing number of Americans on probation and parole threatens to surpass mass incarceration as the nation’s biggest criminal justice challenge, according to a comprehensive nationwide review.

About 4.5 million Americans—one in every 55 adults—were in some form of community supervision in 2016, the latest year for which comprehensive statistics were available, according to a briefing paper summing up research into the parole and probation system by the Pew Public Safety Performance Project.

That represents more than twice the number of Americans currently held in jails and prisons, said the review, which was co-sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF).

“The sheer size of the population means that current failure rates [in probation and parole] contribute significantly to the nation’s volume of arrests, drug misuse and incarceration,” the study said.

Although the review found that the population on probation or parole has dropped in concert with crime rates since 2007 in 37 states, the overall national trend has continued to rise. Since 1980 the number of American adults under supervision has increased by 239 percent.

The briefing paper, with 11 separate charts documenting the community supervision landscape in the U.S., was released last month together with an announcement by the LJAF that it would “make major investments” supporting research into alternatives to the current community supervision system without endangering public safety.

The ratio of those in community supervision varies widely from state to state, from as low as one in 105 adults in Virginia to as high as one in 18 adults in Georgia, one of the charts shows.

The challenge of community supervision has been “largely overlooked” in the movement for justice reform, researchers said.

“Probation and parole failures contribute to exceptionally high incarceration populations, increased taxpayer burdens, and decreased public safety,” said Kelli Rhee, president and CEO of LJAF, in a separate statement accompanying the review.

“If we can reform these systems so they better position people for success—providing access to mental health and substance use disorder treatment, for example—we will make an enormous impact on the justice system and individual lives.”

The review noted that, in contrast to the prison population, most of those on community supervision had been sentenced for nonviolent crimes: about eight in every 10 probationers, and two-thirds of parolees.

“If individuals under supervision for drug crimes and those for property crimes each made up a city, they would make among the 10 largest cities in the U.S.,” according to one of the charts released in the study.

Although about half of those on probation and parole successfully complete their terms, failure for the remainder often means a return to prison, and a significant number find themselves again behind bars as a result of “technical violations” of their post-release terms, rather than for new crimes, the review noted.

Researchers also found that African Americans disproportionally comprise 30 percent of those on community supervision (they represent 13 percent of the U.S. adult population) and that 3.5 times as many men as women were on supervision—though the number of women on probation or parole has doubled to more than one million since 1990.

A key section of the study focused on states whose emphasis on treatment and post-release counseling, or on reducing sanctions for violations for probationers and parolees, had reduced supervised populations.

For example, after Louisiana established a 90-day cap on jail or prison terms for first-time technical violations, the length of incarcerations dropped by 281 days and new-crime revocations fell 22 percent.

But it noted that “many people under supervision who could benefit from treatment do not receive it because of strained budgets, limited options in the community or other factors.”

“Research has shown that it is possible to have less crime and less correctional control,” said Jake Horowitz, director of the Pew Public Safety Performance Project.

“Community supervision agencies across the country may need a nudge, but they are well positioned to implement reforms that will safely reduce incarceration and increase the number of people who are successful on supervision.”

The charts and full report can be downloaded here.

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