New report considers role of probation and parole in mass incarceration
A pie chart breaking down “correctional control” in North Carolina, the number of people in prisons or jails, or on probation or parole in the Old North State. (source: Prison Policy Initiative)
A new report from the Prison Policy Initiative looks at the ways the “mass supervision” of people on probation and parole contributes to mass incarceration, giving a more thorough picture of the expansiveness of the U.S. criminal justice system.
“Understanding how each state fares in probation and parole in addition to its systems of confinement gives us a more accurate and complete picture of its reliance on punishment,” Leah Wang, a research analyst with the initiative, wrote in the report.
North Carolina is near the national average rate of incarceration, but ranked 41st in terms of “mass punishment” when researchers factored in supervision.
The Prison Policy Initiative’s data show there were 28,995 people in state prisons, 9,005 on parole and 59,295 on probation as of Dec. 31, 2021. (More recent figures on the North Carolina Department of Adult Correction’s website state that, as of May 10, 2023, there were 30,685 people in state prisons, 65,109 individuals on probation and 11,035 on parole or some other form of release.)
Altogether, 125,439 North Carolinians (representing more than 1% of the state’s population) are on “correctional control” under the watchful eyes of the state, either in prison, jail or on supervision.
Roughly 3.7 million adults nationwide are on some form of community supervision like probation or parole, almost twice the number of people in prisons and jails combined.
Probation and parole are often billed as alternatives to incarceration, and grants thereof portrayed as acts of grace, but the report argues that both represent an extension of a system that doesn’t just include prison cells and jail yards, but that also maintains tentacles in communities across the nation.
Too often, the report argues, such supervision merely delays imprisonment, rather than preventing or ending it. Attempting to stay in compliance with the many rules that come along with such supervision can be profoundly difficult and provide a ready pathway back to imprisonment: supervision violations are responsible for 42% of prison admissions across the U.S.
As noted in a recent commentary in The Appeal written by a person on parole, the severe limitations of such forms of supervision and the enormous power and discretion vested in parole officers can conspire to make it difficult to obtain stable housing, limit a person’s employment prospects, and hinder their ability to spend time with their family.
That writer is now homeless, living in a motel and unable to use his car. He scrapes by doing odd jobs, having been told that the onerous conditions are necessary for public safety.
“In truth, it feels more like a punitive measure,” he wrote. “The constant state of homelessness has become an extension of the punishment for my crime.”
The Prison Policy Initiative report says that community supervision too often “sets people up to fail,” which can mean going back to jail or prison for being accused of a new crime, having difficulty following the wide-ranging rules or not being able to pay the monthly fees required to be on supervision. Most of those who wind up in prison again are sent there for breaking a rule, not for committing a new crime, the report says.
In Georgia and West Virginia, more than a quarter of those in jails — over 15,000 people — are there for violating the terms of their supervision.
Despite the frequency by which community supervision can be a “tripwire” for harsher punishments, the Prison Policy Initiative hasn’t given up on the use of probation and parole as a means to unwind mass incarceration. The group suggests that states reform their systems so probation is used as an actual diversion to incarceration, that parole is used as a tool for shortening long prison sentences, and both are used to help people stabilize their lives, rather than one that forces them to comply with conditions that can just as easily put them back behind bars.
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