A man nine years out of a New York prison proposes marriage to his girlfriend who also has a criminal record. Because it is against the rules to associate with someone with a prior record, his parole is revoked and he is returned to prison for a year─after which he marries the same person, this time with his parole officer’s permission.
A Texas woman is sentenced to five years in prison for attempting to vote while on felony probation. She cast a provisional ballot that was not counted and claims that she did not know she was prohibited from voting while under supervision.
More than 10 years after he had been sentenced to probation as a teenager, an award-winning Philadelphia hip-hop artist is imprisoned for two to four years for a technical violation for a traffic infraction and breaking up an altercation in an airport. Both charges against him were ultimately dismissed.
The above three cases represent the broad range of behavior─some of it barely illegal, some illegal only for those under supervision, some not illegal at all─for which a person under probation or parole can be deprived of their liberty.
Although “mass supervision” on probation or parole has not yet garnered the attention of “mass incarceration,” its impact is no small matter.
There are 4.5 million people under community supervision in America, twice as many as are incarcerated, a figure that amounts to more than the population in half of all U.S. states. About four in ten people entering America’s prisons and jails each year are under supervision. Many of those are incarcerated, not for committing new crimes, but for breaking a wide array of supervision rules.
Community corrections has been slowly gaining attention commensurate with its size and contribution to prison growth.
- From 2013 to 2016, the Harvard Kennedy School convened 28 community corrections officials, researchers, prosecutors, advocates and formerly incarcerated people into an Executive Session on Community Corrections. The executive session published papers and convened public forums arguing for sweeping reforms, including shrinking the number of people under supervision and reducing revocations to prison.
- In August 2017, every major association representing community corrections endorsed a Statement on the Future of Community Corrections, along with 35 prominent probation and parole administrators and 45 leading prosecutors. The statement asserted that, “community corrections has become a significant contributor to mass incarceration,” recommending that “that the number of people on probation and parole supervision in America be significantly reduced.”
- A few months later, Meek Mill, the Philadelphia hip-hop artist profiled above, was returned to prison for a technical probation violation, spurring a national outcry and bringing the issue of community corrections to the attention of a broader audience. A nationwide effort to #FreeMeek sprung up and #Cut50, a bipartisan effort co-founded by Van Jones to reduce mass incarceration, launched a #StillNotFree Campaign to extend the conversation beyond Mill’s case.
- The Columbia Justice Lab began publishing a series of papers on the impact of probation and parole nationally and in selected states coinciding with this explosion of interest in probation and parole reform. Too Big to Succeed – a national look at probation and parole authored by 20 leading community corrections administrators was followed by reports focusing on New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the latter of which we release collaboratively with JustLeadershipUSA.
- Columbia’s New York report inspired the Less is More Act filed in January 2019 by Assemblymember Walter Mosley and Senator Brian Benjamin aimed at reducing the number of people violated on parole in New York State. New York returns the second highest number of people to prison for non-criminal, technical violations and people incarcerated for state parole violations are the only population that is increasing on Rikers Island.
This brings us to Wednesday’s launch of the REFORM Alliance, an organization inspired by Mill’s case, committed to advancing criminal justice reform.
Van Jones of #Cut50 (and a CNN host) has been tapped to lead the initiative, whose board is co-chaired by Mill and Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin, and includes musician-entrepreneur Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and other titans of business, entertainment and sports.
As these various initiatives surge forward, it is important that they take an elemental, rather than incremental, approach to reforming probation and parole.
Probation and parole were established in the 1800s in America with the ambitious goal of helping people who had run afoul of the law turn their lives around. As mass incarceration exploded over the last four decades, community supervision mimicked it, even rebranding itself as “community corrections” in an attempt to stay apace with its big brother, the prison.
It partially succeeded, growing almost four-fold since 1980, but receiving only one out of ten corrections dollars.
To be sure, efforts to shrink supervision and make it less punitive are worthwhile. However, if the goal is to support people so they can flourish in their home communities, there needs to be a deeper examination of the best approaches to doing so.
New York City offers one example of how much probation can shrink substantially without producing undesirable consequences. From 1996 to 2017, the number of people on probation in New York City declined by three-quarters and technical violations plummeted to three percent. In 2014, 26 percent of people arrested for felonies in New York received unsupervised conditional or unconditional discharges while only four percent were sentenced to probation.
Did crime rise because of this massive reduction in community supervision in New York City? Did the jail population explode as probation, sometimes viewed as an alternative to incarceration, receded?
Quite the opposite, there was a 57 percent decrease in violent crime and a 55 percent decline in jail usage in New York City during that time.
And although the probation department’s budget rightly dropped, its per person expenditures doubled because of the sharp decline in its population, allowing me, as department head, to increase our contracts for community programs from two to 54 during my tenure there.
Former New York State Parole Director and New York City Probation Commissioner Martin Horn has proposed abolishing parole supervision and channeling the savings from reduced revocations to provide vouchers for persons on parole to buy their own services and supports.
Horn believes that parole is not particularly good at rehabilitating people on its caseload because parole is about taking risks and government is risk-averse. He reasons that individuals convicted of a new crime during the time they would have been on parole should be given moderate additional punishment, but should not be violated for non-criminal acts.
Give Returning Citizens More Responsibility
By putting programmatic decision-making into the hands of returning citizens, Horn also believes services will flow into the neighborhoods they live in.
Horn’s watershed proposal, and the experience of New York City, force us to ask basic questions about the proper role of government in helping people reacclimate to their communities.
High caseloads, scarce resources and a “trail ‘em, nail ‘em, and jail ‘em” attitude that replaced the Progressive-era’s rehabilitative ethic has rendered community supervision too big, overwhelmed and punitive to succeed.
There is not much evidence that revoking and imprisoning people contributes to public safety or rehabilitation, but we know it has a devastating and disproportionate toll on poor, young men of color. In contrast, recent research by Patrick Sharkey has found that increasing community programs helps improve community safety.
Instead of marginal fixes to the largest part of America’s system of punishment and control, this new wave of activism should ask how much, if at all, we need to employ government workers to watch those who have broken the law, versus how much we should be bolstering communities to help their neighbors turn their lives around.
Vincent Schiraldi is co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab and Senior Research Scientist at the Columbia School of Social Work. He was formerly Commissioner of New York City Probation.