Pew: Recommendations Would Strengthen and Shrink Probation and Parole

Policy framework endorsed by national organizations

Pew: Recommendations Would Strengthen and Shrink Probation and Parole

WASHINGTON—The Pew Charitable Trusts, in partnership with Arnold Ventures, today released a comprehensive policy framework for improving probation and parole systems nationwide. The plan has been endorsed by a diverse group of professional associations, advocacy organizations, and other criminal justice experts. Comprising more than 50 policy recommendations and best practices, the report, “Policy Reforms Can Strengthen Community Supervision,” presents a roadmap for state lawmakers and community supervision practitioners to decrease the size of the supervised population, reduce the use of incarceration as a sanction for rule violations, and increase successful outcomes for people on probation and parole.

As COVID-19 spreads through jails and prisons, state and local officials are looking  for policy options to promote public health by shrinking incarcerated populations and reducing the volume of people on probation and parole who return to those facilities. 

The framework seeks to address the challenges facing systems of community supervision—mandatory oversight outside a secure facility—across the country. Nationwide, 4.5 million people—1 in 55 adults—were on probation or parole before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. That is more than twice the total number of adults in state and federal prisons and local jails.

Now, because of the need for social distancing, correctional agencies have begun to move individuals who would otherwise be in jail or prison into community supervision, further straining already stretched budgets. Some supervision agencies, in turn, have begun suspending practices that research suggests are ineffective, such as incarcerating people for breaking supervision rules, mandating frequent in-person reporting, and collecting fees from people on probation and parole for required supervision activities. 

So although the need for cost-effective, research-based supervision practices is long-standing, the emergence of COVID-19 has made that need more urgent.

The organizations that endorsed the framework agreed that although research has identified effective supervision and treatment strategies, the size of the probation and parole population makes state and local corrections agencies’ ability to implement them more difficult. To address this challenge, the framework demonstrates what an effective community supervision system looks like; lays out seven overarching goals along with key policies, many rooted in research and data; and includes specific case studies examining approaches that have worked in different states and localities. Organizations endorsing the framework are the Alliance for Safety and Justice, the American Conservative Union, the American Probation and Parole Association, the Columbia Justice Lab, the Correctional Leaders Association, the Crime and Justice Institute, the Justice Action Network, JustLeadershipUSA, the National Association of Probation Executives, R Street Institute, the REFORM Alliance, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation. 

“States interested in protecting public safety and health as budgets constrict should consider ways to improve the largest and most overlooked sector of the corrections system: probation and parole,” said Jake Horowitz, director of Pew’s public safety performance project. “Community supervision was originally intended to provide a measure of accountability and serve as an alternative to incarceration, but it has become a leading contributor to jail and prison populations. The good news is that we have identified solutions, backed by data, that can improve outcomes and protect public safety.”

The framework is the product of a year-long effort, guided by an 18-member advisory council, to produce a resource that state decision-makers can use to shape their community supervision reform efforts. Pew, in partnership with Arnold Ventures, established the advisory council, which is made up of criminal justice experts and professionals from academia, the behavioral health field, community supervision agencies, the courts (including judges, prosecution, and defense), and law enforcement, as well as people who are or have been on probation and parole. The council members and individual endorsers are listed in the report. The council identified seven policy goals for improving probation and parole systems:

  • Enact alternatives to arrest, incarceration, and supervision.
  • Implement evidence-based policies centered on risk and needs.
  • Adopt shorter supervision sentences and focus on goals and incentives.
  • Establish effective and appropriate supervision conditions.
  • Develop individualized conditions for payment of legal financial obligations.
  • Reduce the use of and pathways to incarceration.
  • Support community supervision agencies.

“As states and local jurisdictions work to contain the spread of COVID-19 and protect their communities’ health, leaders should ensure that people on probation or parole are included in those important conversations,” said Amy Solomon, vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures. “Pew’s report gives leaders a state-of-the-science playbook and comprehensive resource that can help us get to smaller, safer, and more effective community supervision systems.”

In addition to embracing the framework’s goals and recommendations, the endorsing organizations have committed to educating constituencies, policymakers, and the public about the need for reform and the ways in which Pew’s report can help guide essential policy change in community supervision. The framework also reinforces an emerging consensus among practitioners for a fundamental shift in the vision and mission of supervision from punishing failure to promoting success. 

The Pew Charitable Trusts is driven by the power of knowledge to solve today’s most challenging problems. Learn more at

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