The way to reduce the number of Americans in the prison system–and on parole–is to acknowledge that behavior doesn’t change overnight, experts say.
“We ask people to change their behavior, but that doesn’t happen immediately,” said Ana M. Bermúdez, commissioner at the Department of Probation in New York City. “What it takes to change the behavior is back and forth [with a parole officer and a parolee], and how many times that’s going to take is just going to have to happen.”
Bermúdez spoke at a Pew-sponsored online conference titled “How Are U.S Cities Reforming Their Criminal Justice Policies?” with fellow panelists Robert Listenbee, the assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, and Teresa May, the director of the Community Supervision and Corrections Department in Harris County, Texas. Bermúdez argued that parole can still hold individuals accountable while helping them grow and change.
“If something isn’t going right, you don’t need to send [the parolee] to jail. It might not be the flashy way a police officer uses, but there are other important pieces,” Bermúdez continued.
As of 2016, the most recent data available, 4.5 million people were on probation or parole. In addition, most people on parole are between the ages of 18 to 25, according to Listenbee.
Listenbee also noted that Pennsylvania was right behind Georgia as “the worst place for supervision in the country,” because of the state’s high numbers of people on parole or probation.
“We need to think long and hard about this,” he said. “We need to address our own wrongdoing. Until we do that in this state, we have problems. We can’t get to a new culture until we realize the old culture was not the best way forward.”
Listenbee recalled a time in Pennsylvania when parolees, primarily African American men, would line up outside the parole office, in the middle of a downtown area, like they were part of a “a cattle call.”
“It was a horrible scene,” he said. “But now there’s an evolving vision, a neighborhood resource center designed for this new view of probation. Hopefully, we will be able to provide them with jobs so they don’t have to be in an embarrassing place in the center of the city.”
Neighborhood resource centers have started to take over the traditional parole offices to offer community-based restorative models.
For example, New York City developed the Neon Arts Program, a program that integrates arts into the seven probation centers throughout New York City.
“When you come to probation, you’re here to create a new now for yourself. To think about where you’ve been and where you want to go. Someone on probation hopefully ends up in a better place then when they started,” Bermúdez said.