The scale of American incarceration has been much in the news recently, with growing bipartisan agreement that this challenge needs to be addressed. Yet a related issue continues to operate below the radar: The number of people on probation or parole supervision in the United States, which has tripled in the past three decades.
Although it might seem counterintuitive, this rapid growth in supervision can serve to increase jail and prison populations—an outcome that should concern policymakers and taxpayers alike.
While about half of the nearly 4.5 million people on probation or parole will successfully complete their sentence, onerous supervision requirements can become a tripwire, resulting in incarceration. In 2016, for example, 350,000 people exited supervision by entering a jail or prison—often for violating rules such as failing a drug test or missing a required meeting rather than for a new criminal offense.
In an effort to transform community supervision and shift the focus from punishing failure to promoting success, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts recently announced a new initiative to work with leading experts on community supervision policy, practitioners at the state and local levels, and advocates and stakeholders, such as victims’ family members, to adopt evidence-backed reforms.
Over the past two decades, research has shown that current probation and parole practices often deliver less than optimal results. We know, for example, that supervision with a large number of conditions, can interfere with an individual’s progress reintegrating into the community. Some jurisdictions have responded to this research: Since the community supervision population reached its peak in 2007, both the crime rate and the rate of community supervision have gone down in 37 states. Texas and South Carolina, among other states, have had declines in crime and supervision of 20 percent or more.
Yet despite the growing body of evidence that supervision can be counterproductive, too many jurisdictions continue to emphasize surveillance and impose standard, one-size-fits-all rules rather than utilizing an integrated approach with treatment and conditions tailored to the individual. These rules include frequent in-person reporting requirements, which often conflict with job or family responsibilities, and costly fines and fees that disproportionately affect poor people, impeding their ability to rebuild their lives.
It doesn’t need to be this way. For the vast majority of people working to stabilize their lives and reconnect with their communities, more appropriate supervision would result in fewer technical violations—and, as research has shown, also produce better public safety results.
But transforming community supervision to focus on success instead of failure will require embracing a new mission and real changes to the policy and practice of probation and parole—consistent with the emerging consensus that the status quo is unsustainable, and that a greater emphasis on crime prevention and behavior change will produce better outcomes for individuals and communities.
The good news is that many states have adopted policy changes aimed at shrinking the number of people on supervision, reducing revocations for technical violations, and investing in community-based treatment. But there’s a long way to go, and we must help states and supervision agencies adopt even bolder reforms.
A new report by our two organizations shows that a smaller correctional footprint and less crime can go hand-in-hand. Supervision for the 21st century will require that probation and parole agencies boost the public safety value of community corrections. That means addressing areas that support reintegration such as strengthening family ties and connections to the community, improving workforce development, and increasing access to drug treatment, as well as repairing the harm inflicted on victims.
Along with these policy reforms, progress requires a change in mindset. Policymakers, community corrections officials, and criminal justice decision-makers must view people on supervision as capable of change and deserving of support. We believe the field is ripe for this transformation, and we stand committed to making it happen.
Amy Solomon is vice president of the criminal justice portfolio at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Jake Horowitz is the director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project.