The nation’s probation and parole systems, usually grouped under the category of Community Supervision, were designed to help people navigate the transition from prison back to civilian life—and become productive, law-abiding citizens.
But they are more likely to make things worse for individuals—and by extension for their families and communities—say experts who believe it’s time for the U.S. to adopt a radically different approach that treats ex-inmates with the dignity they deserve as returning citizens.
“The (U.S.) community supervision population has grown 239 percent since 1980,” says Connie Utada, who leads the community corrections work at Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project.
“It’s now over 4.5 million people. Larger than everybody who’s in jail and prison combined.”
In addition, according to research gathered in a joint effort by both Pew Charitable Trusts and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (now Arnold Ventures), nearly a third of the roughly 2.3 million people on probation every year fail to successfully complete their supervision and wind up back in prison again, often not even for committing new crimes.
“In 2016, 350,000 people who were on probation and parole were sent to prison or jail, many for minor infractions or some type of rule violation,” said Utada.
Instead of helping people start over, it’s a “revolving door that actually denies (former offenders) the ability to reenter the workforce, to get stable housing, or to provide for their families,” she added.
Utada, speaking at a discussion last week at the 14th annual John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime, was joined by Vincent Schiraldi, a senior research analyst at the Columbia Justice Lab and former commissioner of New York City Probation; and Brian Lovins, Assistant Director of the Harris County (Texas) Community Supervision and Corrections Department.
All said state policymakers had generally failed to address the flaws in the community supervision system.
The problem is exemplified by states like Pennsylvania, where a 2017 report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that roughly one-third of prisoners in the state are in prison for probation or parole violations.
In New York, a 2018 report from the Columbia University Justice Lab found that, while the number of people imprisoned has dropped by 21 percent, the population being held for technical parole violations, such as missing an appointment with a parole officer, associating with people with felony records, or failing a drug test, has increased by 15 percent.
“Crime’s going down, the number of people on parole is going down, but the number of people being technically violated and returned to incarceration is going up,” said Vincent Schiraldi, author of the report.
The current system of probation and parole used in the U.S. is an ineffective waste of criminal justice resources and a driver of incarceration rather than an alternative to it, the speakers said.
And while some may seek to blame these numbers on some sort of animus on the part of those handling the cases, Schiraldi maintains that the culprit is due more to underfunding and bureaucratic apathy than anything truly sinister.
Apathy and Neglect
“There are thousands of probation and parole departments in America,” said Schiraldi. “These places reek of apathy and neglect.”
While working as a commissioner for New York City probation, Schiraldi says he regularly encountered distrust by judges, generally low expectations of the probation department, and all the while no one knocking on the door for change.
Those handling cases and distributing violations were “lunch pail people”—men and women who just wanted to get to retirement and were willing to go whichever way the winds were blowing.
“We put bureaucrats in spaces where if they revoke somebody and send them to prison nothing happens to them, but if they take a chance on someone, and it goes south, they’re screwed,” said Schiraldi.
“I could have done nothing and been fine. In an environment like that, it’s what you’d expect.”
Such neglect is dangerous and is tied to the increasing rate of people on parole and probation who are currently incarcerated for supposed technical violations, the panel was told.
A study from the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation found that parole and probation officers who failed to adhere to the standard Risk and Need principles, which are the methods used to decide the level of intensity of services based on risk levels of the offender, greatly contributed to increased recidivism rates in the states surveyed.
Schiraldi believes there are many ways to address this problem, but the simplest is to make probation departments smaller and more focused. Another is to focus on zero-based parole and zero-based budgeting, starting from nothing and justifying every person put under supervision.
By forcing departments to account for every dollar they spend, Schiraldi suggested, you force due diligence and accountability.
“Prove to me that this is the best thing we could do with the next government dollar versus efforts to improve communities focused on probation, drug treatment, or mental health,” said Schiraldi.
Yet while efforts like this might help to clear out some examples of negligence and apathy, the fact may be that supervision alone just isn’t the answer.
“Research shows there are better ways to do this, that the closer you watch or monitor somebody the more likely they are to be punished for a minor violation,” said Utada.
Therefore, Utada and Pew Charitable Trust have taken on two main initiatives:
- Building a policy framework to develop a number of best practices with the focus of reducing the community supervision population, thus getting better outcomes for people on supervision, and reducing the amount of time that people are spending incarcerated for technical violations or performance violations; and
- Launching a multi-state technical assistance effort to help reach meaningful reform through pre-directed and proven paths of action.
“Supervision can be more successful when it is coupled with treatment and paired and customized for somebody’s individual risk and needs,” said Utada.
“So, if somebody is a low risk to re-offend, they’ll be much more successful if they have very little involvement or connection with the correctional system. But if they are high risk to re-offend, the focus should be on finding out what drives their criminal behavior rather than just punishing it.”
For Brian Lovins, who has done extensive work in using evidence-based standards to improve juvenile and adult correctional programs, finding the driver to prevent criminal behavior, and abandoning the punitive nature of our entire criminal justice system, is the first step to fixing the problem of probation and parole in this country.
That amounts, he said, to turning the whole system upside down,.
“The way that the criminal justice system is (currently) designed, is for self-correctors,” said Lovins, who helped develop Ohio’s juvenile and adult risk assessment systems.
“From the very beginning, the expectation is that the police arrest you, put you in jail, bring you to court, punish you, and the punishment by itself is enough to stop you and make you go a different direction.”
Lovins maintains that this is a flawed concept of our criminal justice system: it does nothing to change people’s behavior.
He pointed out that while this line of reasoning may enable people who have the skills and capacity to avoid re-engaging in the behavior that got them into prison; it does little for those less fortunate.
“It’s not enough for the folks that don’t have those skills, don’t have those resources, come from impoverished areas, come from families that are struggling, come from a broken school system,” said Lovins.
A 2018 report by Human Rights Watch underlined the point, observing that many probation programs bury low-income men and women in fees and costs that they are never able to meet or recover from.
And Lovins stressed that these systems also disproportionately affect people of color over white offenders in the same situations. A 2014 study by the Urban Institute found that black people on probation are more likely than whites or Hispanics to have their probation revoked.
“From a probation standpoint, our system works backwards,” said Lovins.
“We give you a set of rules and we referee those rules and tell you to behave today. We have this belief that because someone in a robe sits behind a desk and tells you go forth and sin no more that people will change and become self-correctors.”
This unrealistic mentality ignores the very real circumstances that many people on probation or parole have to deal with, he said.
And whether it’s drug addiction, joblessness, social interaction issues, mental health issues, poverty, or a lack of education, Lovins maintains that the current system chooses to ignore them all and, instead, paint with a broad brush that only lands more and more of them back in jail and prison.
“We expect you to be better from day one, and we start counting against you, every time you screw up, and then at the end we look at all the marks and we fail you anyway,” said Lovins.
Probation Officer as Coach
In an effort to change these practices, Lovins endorses a probation model where, instead of a referee, a probation officer would be a coach.
While working at the University of Cincinnati’s School of Criminal Justice, he helped develop a statewide juvenile risk assessment system that encourages establishing relationships and developing pro-social skills with offenders, using positive reinforcement, and harboring a willingness to teach and adapt.
“What should happen is that by the end of supervision, by the end of this intervention, you should be better,” said Lovins.
Now, as assistant director of the Harris County Community Supervision and Corrections Department, Lovins has brought this sort of reformist approach to Texas. He reported that the strategy has so far resulted in reductions in both technical violations and law violations, and lowered recidivism rates in his county.
He suggested that implementing this approach may also help to improve and curb the kind of neglect and apathy existing in departments by holding staff members to similar ideals.
“I use the same model with our staff as I do with the folks that we serve,” said Lovins.
“Every day I tell my staff if you screw up, we’ll move on and figure out how not to do it again. And that translates to them saying that to the people that they serve. Everyone has a chance to change and grow, and we’re a learning model.”
As a result, Lovins says, his staff love coming to work; there has been less turnover and callouts from a position that, historically, offered little in the way of positive reinforcement and, instead, made them little more than a referee on the sidelines throwing flags.
“Now they get to be the coach, and they get to change people’s lives,” said Lovins.
Yet despite positive moves for reform like these, probation and parole in this country still remains a major problem with daunting hurdles for the average person to overcome.
A 2015 report by the Robina Institute estimated that people on probation or parole must comply with 18-20 different requirements a day in order to remain in good standing with the probation department. And while reform research promises improvement, some insist that they’re only focusing on the edges of the problem.
“Research mostly shows us how to get through this pathetic thing that everyone calls community supervision to a 20 percent better pathetic thing,” said Schiraldi.
And while this still counts as a step in the right direction, until underlying issues such as poverty, institutionalized racism, poor education, and mental health can be addressed and discussed as the root issues of the problem that they are, he maintains that small successes only seduce people into thinking the problem can be fixed that easily.
Instead, reformists like Schiraldi, Lovins, and Utada insist that change can only come by looking at the big picture.
“Let’s not just ask how can we get it 20 percent better,” said Schiraldi.
“Let’s ask the whole question.”
Additional Reading: “A Parole System Report Card Gives Most States Failing Grades”
Isidoro Rodriguez is a contributing writer to The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.