Across the 50 states and the District of Columbia, 4.5 million people are on probation or parole—twice the incarcerated population, including those in state and federal prisons and local jails. Virtually all demographic groups are represented in the community supervision population. However, people of color, particularly African-Americans, and men are disproportionately represented.
Many state lawmakers seeking to reduce the scale and boost the public safety value of community corrections systems are motivated to investigate the significant disparities in supervision populations, make needed improvements, and track performance for evidence of progress.
The racial gap resembles that in incarceration: Black adults are about 3.5 times as likely as whites to be supervised, and although African-Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. adult population, they account for 30 percent of those on probation or parole. In addition, although federal data do not indicate disproportionate representation of Hispanics in community corrections, many states do not report ethnicity data, so Hispanics under supervision are undercounted.
Imbalances also exist among females and males under supervision. Men are supervised at a rate about 3.5 times that of women. However, the number of women under supervision has nearly doubled from 520,000 in 1990 to more than 1 million at the end of 2016. As a result, women accounted for one-quarter of the probation population and 1 in 8 parolees by 2016.
Along with the immense growth and scale of probation and parole and a stubbornly high failure rate that accounts for a substantial share of prison admissions, the discrepancies in sex and race highlight a need for a new approach to community supervision that shifts the purpose from punishing failure to promoting success.
Jake Horowitz is the director and Connie Utada is an associate manager with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project.