Probation and Parole ‘Feed’ Mass Incarceration: Report

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Art by Sally Deng / Human Rights Watch via HRW & ACLU report.

Probation and parole are often advertised as “alternatives to incarceration” that allow people to largely continue on with their life around a support group. However, a new report released late last week from the Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that probation and parole actually drive high numbers of people right back to jail or prison.

Many of these people are disproportionately Black and brown, and the authors say their return to a cell is largely due to the fact that they don’t get the services and resources they need. 

Art by Sally Deng / Human Rights Watch via HRW & ACLU report.

“Probation and parole are seen as acts of leniency, but in the states we examined, they often lead to incarceration just for using drugs, failing to report a new address, or public order offenses like disorderly conduct,” said Allison Frankel, Aryeh Neier fellow at Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, and the report’s author.

“Incarcerating people for failing to meet the overly burdensome requirements of supervision upends peoples’ lives without meaningfully addressing their underlying needs.”

The data shows that over the past 50 years, the use of probation and parole in America has “skyrocketed” — parallel to increasing jail and prison populations. As of 2016, 4.5 million people, or 1 in every 55, were under supervision, often for years. 

To better understand this problem, the authors did in-depth research on states where the problem is particularly acute — Georgia, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — and interviewed 164 people directly impacted by the probation and parole system. 

One man, Earnest Burgess, was convicted of drug possession in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 2011. After looking at his conditions of supervision document, he noticed certain conditions like “You shall not have in your possession at any time more than $100.00 in cash without agent’s approval,” felt onerous.  

With more than 35 rules and conditions, Burgess said he wondered, “Are you trying to rehabilitate me, or are you trying to punish [me]?”

Researchers also spoke with a Black Pennsylvania woman who “cycled through probation and jail,” mostly for shoplifting and drug offenses, which she says “stemmed from a substance use disorder.” 

“I asked for programs,” the woman told the researchers, “but [probation] didn’t want to hear that I need help; they just gave me time.”

The researchers also found that there are stark racial disparities in supervision, and its resulting punitive enforcement. 

Nationwide in 2016, Pew Charitable Trusts reported that 1 in every 81 white people was under supervision, compared with 1 in every 23 Black people. They also found that Black Americans are more likely to be arrested and found in violation of their supervision terms compared to any other race or ethnicity.

Right Back Behind Bars

Because of the lack of resources, support programs, and countless rules to follow for probation and parole, many people are finding themselves right back in the cells they were in.

In 2017, 45 percent of all state prison admissions resulted from probation or parole violations, proving that this problem is pervasive in the system, the authors detail. 

Art by Sally Deng / Human Rights Watch via HRW & ACLU report.

Nearly half of all prison admissions in Pennsylvania were for parole violations; and, over the last two decades, Wisconsin prisons have reincarcerated “about twice as many people for supervision violations as for regular criminal convictions.” 

In Georgia, during a 5-month period in 2019, between 23 and 43 percent of all jail bookings in 9 counties involved probation or parole violations.

Because of the data, the problem the supervision-to-incarceration pipeline creates is clear, and it’s a systematic issue that must be addressed, the authors detail. 

At their root, probation and parole violations “often stem from poverty; a failure by authorities to support people in addressing underlying challenges, such as substance use disorder, housing insecurity, or mental health conditions; and racially biased policing and enforcement.”

Because of this knowledge, the Human Rights Watch and the ACLU recommend that all federal, state, and local governments turn away from supervision and incarceration tactics for eligible individuals. 

Instead, they suggest the governments invest in jobs and housing opportunities while encouraging voluntary treatment for substance use disorders and mental health care for those that need it.

This way, the authors write, you’re treating the criminality at its root, and ensuring that everyone is well equipped to enter back into their life.  

“By investing in communities over supervision and confinement, governments can work to break the supervision-to-incarceration pipeline, and help people get the resources they need,” Frankel concluded.

Meanwhile in a separate report, the Bureau of Justice Statistics said the number of people on probation and parole has dropped to its lowest level since 1998.

The full ACLU/HRW report can be accessed here. 

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