Probation and parole were envisioned to help reduce the prison population and provide some structure and aid to those re-entering society. However, these systems have metastasized into a monstrous drain on state resources, even as they have damaged the lives of the formerly incarcerated.
By reforming the system of supervision, the criminal justice system can accomplish its goals of seeking justice for victims, while rehabilitating those who have become involved in crime.
Probation and parole serve similar but distinct functions. In both cases, the individual is under state supervision in lieu of detention and must adhere to certain conditions. Yet while probation allows a defendant to be released for a certain length of time in lieu of incarceration, parole involves the release of a prisoner before his or her sentence is completed.
Despite their shared goal of keeping people out of prisons, both systems are creating an additional layer of state-sanctioned control and surveillance, as well as exacerbating rather than inhibiting the cycle of crime in a community.
In Pennsylvania alone, more than a quarter of a million people are supervised by the Board of Parole and Probation.
Indeed, a report by the Columbia Justice Lab listed Pennsylvania as having the third-highest supervision rate in the country, noting that “in Pennsylvania, one out of every 34 adults is under community supervision, a rate 36 percent higher than the national average.”
Given the number of people under supervision, those employed as probation and parole officers have massive caseloads, which decreases the effectiveness of supervision.
*In Pennsylvania, each county probation officer actively supervises 113 people at any given time.
Larger caseloads can increase recidivism rates. In fact, the Journal of Crime and Justice studied how larger caseloads can worsen probation outcomes and found that a larger caseload increased the rate of recidivism by roughly 30 percent.
Aside from these overwhelming caseloads, the extended length of probation and parole does not increase public safety. The risk of an inmate reoffending once released on supervision decreases after the first year. The National Institute of Justice has studied this phenomenon and found that of those prisoners who were re-arrested, more than half — 57 percent — were arrested before the conclusion of the first year.
And in New York, those released early from probation were less likely to be arrested for a new felony in their first unsupervised year than those who were on probation for their full term.
For individuals on probation or parole, it can be difficult to comply with the terms for long periods of time, and violating these terms can result in re-arrest. Generally, a few terms are present in any type of supervision — such as securing or maintaining employment and drug abstinence — but special conditions from a judge can be added to individual cases.
And at times, these conditions can give far too much leeway to a judge’s interpretation of what counts as a violation.
For example, in New Jersey, one judge ordered that probationers “not enter disreputable places or associate with disreputable people.” One client under said condition was arrested in a bar for simply being in that bar and having a drink.
In addition to any criminal fines or court costs, a person on supervision must pay a monthly supervision fee. Failure to pay supervision fees may be viewed as a probation or parole violation, which could result in the court revoking an individual’s parole or probation and imposing a predetermined prison sentence on that individual.
For those who have not committed any infraction other than failing to comply with parole or probation conditions, jail time is all too often the result.
As Pennsylvania State Sen Anthony Williams (D) has said, “Approximately one-third of all beds in state prisons are occupied by people who have violated the conditions of their probation. These are often individuals who pose no real danger to society.”
In an effort to reduce this overwhelming statistic, as well as the other issues that create barriers to effective parole and probation, Sen. Williams introduced a Senate Bill 1067 earlier this year.
The bill — now awaiting a hearing in the state Senate Judiciary Committee — aims to limit the length of probation. Additionally, the legislation would limit a judge’s ability to jail probationers for technical violations that do not threaten public safety and would incentivize good behavior by allowing judges to reduce probation time.
To combat supervision officers’ burdensome caseload and decrease the negative impact of excessive supervision on individuals in the justice system, exploring solutions — like those proposed in SB 1067 — can lead to reforms that ultimately produce positive strides toward greater public safety.
Jesse Kelley is a Criminal Justice policy analyst and Arthur Rizer is Director of Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties Policy at R Street.