Probation, parole an overlooked population of the criminal justice system

Keywords parole / Prisons / Probation
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The United States has one of the biggest incarcerated populations in the world – roughly 1.9 million – but the number of Americans on probation or parole is nearly twice that at 3.7 million.

A new ‘Punishment Beyond Prisons’ report from the Prison Policy Initiative, shared with the Indiana Capital Chronicle, details probation and parole populations on a state level, with Indiana outpacing its peers and driving up the number of Hoosiers involved in the criminal legal system.

Roughly 49,000 Hoosiers are behind bars, with slightly more than half of those in state prisons at 25,000. Another 19,000, or 39%, are in local jails. The rest are mostly in federal prison.

But those numbers pale in comparison to the number of Hoosiers on probation: 96,000. An additional 5,500 Hoosiers are on parole, which is a form of supervised release after serving prison time.

In contrast, probation is a sentence used in place of incarceration and allows qualifying individuals to stay in their communities by meeting certain criteria. This can include regular meetings with a probation officer, wearing an electronic monitor, paying fines or fees and attending specialized programming.

“In theory, probation and parole are important tools that can reduce the number of people in prison and jail, where conditions are often dangerous,” the report said. “However, community supervision too often sets people up to fail, with incredibly high stakes.”

Does probation or parole work?

In comparison to other states, Indiana ranks 8th in the country in terms of mass punishment, which includes incarceration, parole and probation. For probation alone, the report ranked Indiana fifth in the nation. The state didn’t place in the top ten in terms of incarceration.

Though the prison system and community supervision are typically viewed as different, the report argues that they aren’t because violating community supervision is often punished with incarceration.

“These one-dimensional views trick us into seeing these systems as entirely separate from incarceration, but they’re deeply linked,” the report said. “Staying in compliance with dozens of high-stakes, arbitrary rules is so unmanageable that experts call community supervision systems ‘a deprivation of liberty in their own right.’”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, nearly 44% of people who left parole or probation in 2021 nationally did so after completing their supervision terms. In Indiana, that number is 58%.

The Council of State Governments found that COVID-19 had many impacts on prison populations, primarily in a decline in the number of people behind bars. But in 2020, roughly 42% of prison admissions were for supervision violations, down from 23% in 2018.

However, approximately 98,000 people were admitted to prison for technical violations, such as breaking curfew.

The report’s authors say that alternative methods of punishment – like community service or drug treatment programs for low-level offenses like drug use – could be used rather than imprisonment.

In particular, authors bemoaned the reliance on fines and fees, which vary from state to state, saying that many people under community supervision needed social services instead.

“…charging people who can’t afford to pay for regular urinalysis tests, electronic monitoring devices, required programs and other costs associated with their supervision only makes it harder for them to succeed,” the report said.

Social services support and the least restrictive conditions possible would help change parole and probation from something that “delays” incarceration into something that prevents it, the study said.

“Parole should be used as a tool for shortening lengthy sentences, probation solely as an alternative to incarceration, and both should successfully set people up for a stable life,” the report said. “If state lawmakers are serious about criminal legal system reform, they must commit to having people released to supervision being in the care of, and not the effective custody of, state and community-based social service agencies (emphasis in the original).”

Authors pointed to New York City, which reduced its probation population from 60% between 1996 and 2014 and yet violent crime dropped by 57% over the same period.

Population is shrinking, but slowly

The report said that the overall population of people on community supervision has declined over the past 15 years, shrinking by 19% since the Prison Policy Initiative reported on probation five years ago. But nearly all of that drop comes from just two states: California and Pennsylvania. Other states, like Arkansas and Kentucky, are growing.

Compared with the organization’s previous probation and parole report from 2018, roughly 2,000 more Hoosiers are behind bars but 9,000 fewer Hoosiers are on probation and Hoosiers on parole shrunk from 8,000 to 5,500.

During the first year of COVID-19, probation use dropped by 7%, but researchers theorized that numbers could have fallen because people successfully completed parole and left supervision or that states revoked parole and parole boards were less willing to release prisoners on parole.

“Changes in probation and parole populations are not inherently bad: Increases may signify that states are moving people out of prisons, and decreases may signify that states are lowering barriers to successfully completing a supervision term,” the report said.

Some improvements states could make range from capping the length of probation or parole and utilizing more non-carceral responses to violations.

“On the other hand, increases could indicate that more people are being placed on supervision who would not have been previously… or that people are being kept on supervision for longer terms,” the report cautioned.

But Indiana has been resistant to prison reform, such as when a bill expanding “compassionate release” of elderly and infirm prisoners died when a key senator objected to the measure. In a 2019 report, Indiana’s parole system got an F- from the Prison Policy Initiative due to the state’s lack of discretionary parole.

Several other efforts to reform probation or parole – or even sentencing – died without a committee hearing.

Just two bills related to parole or probation became law: one emphasizing that time served behind bars doesn’t count toward parole for violent offenders as well as another bill that allows a study of electronic monitoring and home detention.

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