Freeing people and resources by shrinking community supervision
In addition to the nearly 2.3 million people behind bars in the United States, there are another estimated 4.5 million people under community supervision, more widely known as probation or parole. To be on probation or parole means to live in a maze of rules that make ordinarily legal conduct a basis for punishment, even reincarceration. Ostensibly “free” people—who are already disproportionately poor, unemployed, homeless, and in the grip of substance use disorders and mental illness—have to get through daily life while also complying with burdensome, unhelpful, punitive supervision requirements. Not surprisingly, many cannot. Every year, approximately 350,000 people go from probation or parole supervision to jail or prison, frequently for “technical violations” rather than for committing crimes. [Pew Research Trust]
Today in The Appeal, Raven Rakia writes about Richard Cannon, who after decades in prison in New York had succeeded in achieving some stability post-release, then arrested and held in jail for six months awaiting adjudication on an alleged parole violation. The charges were eventually dismissed and he was released, but Cannon “lost his psychiatrist and the social worker that has been assigned to him,” his housing, and his hard-won stability. [Raven Rakia / The Appeal]
In Philadelphia, where rates of supervision are double the national average, District Attorney Larry Krasner has, in recent weeks, announced several policies to address his office’s contribution to the problem of mass supervision. He has pledged to seek shorter probation and parole terms, in line with the research on when these terms cross the line from helpful or neutral to counterproductive and harmful.
This week, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Krasner sent a letter to the city’s judges with proposals for how to streamline the early termination of probation and parole supervision. [Samantha Melamed / Philadelphia Inquirer] This proposal is based on research showing that: “Supervision of less than 3 years does some good especially in the first year and less so thereafter. Supervision of more than 3 years makes things worse—it causes failure on probation and parole and harms public safety.” [Letter from District Attorney Larry Krasner]
Under Krasner’s proposal, a judge could grant a group of petitions for early termination of probation or parole without hearings, after the probation and parole department had an opportunity to weigh in, and only if petitions met criteria previously laid out by the judge. The proposal explicitly states that it would be up to individual judges to determine early termination criteria. [Letter from District Attorney Larry Krasner]
The recognition that community corrections—originally envisioned as an alternative to incarceration—has been a feeder of mass incarceration has become more widespread in recent years. Perhaps nothing has drawn attention to the problem as much as the rapper Meek Mill’s reincarceration in Philadelphia in 2017. An arrest and conviction of disputed legal validity when he was 19 spawned an over a decade-long saga of control and punishment. Thanks to his fame, when he was thrown in jail and faced prison time for violations of probation it helped spur a national conversation about the abuse of community supervision. [P.R. Lockhart / Vox]
His decade on probation would not have been possible in many other places. “Pennsylvania is oddly and significantly out of step with the rest of the nation,” a report published in 2018 read. At issue was the state’s overuse of community supervision—probation and parole supervision—even relative to the rest of the country. (The United States as a whole imposes these forms of control on people at rates much higher than European countries.) The 2018 report was from the Columbia University Justice Lab and built on the Justice Lab’s previous work on the problem of mass supervision nationwide. [Columbia University Justice Lab]
The report came out amid the outcry over Meek Mill’s harsh treatment. Meek Mill, whose given name is Robert Rihmeek Williams, became an exemplar of the abuse permissible under Pennsylvania laws and the problem of probation—and parole—supervision that was too long, and gave too much power to judges to send people to jail or prison.
As the Justice Lab’s report pointed out, and as other researchers have noted, though the problem is a national one, Pennsylvania is an outlier. Its laws permit supervision terms that are unheard of in other states. Felony and misdemeanor probation sentences can equal the maximum prison sentences permitted under the law.
Shrinking community supervision, as with shrinking correctional control as a whole, would free people and should free resources. In an op-ed for the New York Times last year, Meek Mill wrote: “The money saved from imprisoning fewer people could then be used for employment programs and mental health counseling that would equip the formerly incarcerated with the tools for reintegration into society.” [Meek Mill / New York Times]
In a piece published last year, the sociologist Bruce Western, co-director of the Justice Lab, wrote about what should replace our systems of punishment and control. What we need, he wrote, are “socially integrative measures.” These would enable communities to “provide housing, health care, and education build opportunity and human capacity.” The ultimate goal, he wrote, was that “social integration will replace punishment,” and importantly, “much of this work will be done outside of traditional criminal justice agencies.” [Bruce Western / The Square One Project]