The United States is the global leader in incarceration, with nearly 2.3 million people locked up. But the true extent of people held captive by the US criminal justice system explodes to nearly 6.7 million adults when other forms of “correctional control” like probation and parole are included.
A report released December 11 by the Prison Policy Initiative reveals that states considered to deliver milder punishments actually rank the highest for their total rates of people under correctional control.
Rhode Island and Minnesota, for example, have some of the lowest incarceration rates in the US, but fall among the most punitive states when including “community supervision.” Conversely, some states with notoriously high incarceration rates do better in terms of probation and parole. Oklahoma, the “global leader in incarceration,” does not even make it into the top 10 states for overall correctional control rates.
Twice as many people—4.5 million adults—are currently subject to “community supervision” as are incarcerated. Most of these are on probation:
Probation and parole are sometimes misleadingly framed as “alternatives” to incarceration. In fact, activists and researchers note, they are intimately entwined in a process that cycles people in and out of formal imprisonment and diffuse forms of control.
“All too often probation serves not as a true alternative to incarceration,” says report author Alexi Jones, “but as the last stop before prison.”
Unreasonable probation and parole conditions, likely to be violated by anyone living in the real world, set participants up for failure. Such requirements include “not associating with people with criminal records,” and “abiding by strict curfew.” Infringement launches people through a “revolving door” of control, often accompanied by “job loss, housing instability, difficulty caring for children, interruptions in healthcare, and a host of other collateral consequences.”
As with formal incarceration, “community supervision” impacts certain populations more than others. Black Americans, for example, disproportionately have their probation revoked. Probation fees unjustly burden people who are poor. And the vast majority—73 percent—of women under correctional controll are on probation.
The report recognizes, though, that probation and parole, if properly reformed, might be tools for decarceration. “It’s obviously better to keep people in the community than to incarcerate them,” says Jones in a press release.
Potential reforms might transform parole from a surveillance apparatus into a means of reducing “the unnecessarily high barriers that people on parole face in securing education, employment, housing, and other vital resources.” Probation, as suggested in the report, should not be applied to people convicted of “low-level crimes,” but reserved instead for those “at a high risk of reoffending and who require more support and supervision.”
“Only with serious reforms to both the conditions and the number of people under its control can probation be a true alternative to incarceration,” concludes the report.
As things stand, writes Topeka K. Sam, the founder of the Probation and Parole Accountability Project, probation is “just another form of incarceration […] an additional layer of law enforcement control, intrusion, and surveillance—especially in communities of color, which are heavily policed already.”