New report/statement urges shrinking probation and parole's footprint

New York City — With nearly five million people under supervision in America—one out of every 52 adults—an unprecedented coalition of parole and probation officials, as well as other concerned individuals and organizations, is urging U.S. policy makers and court officials to significantly reduce the number of people supervised by community corrections agencies.

The call for reform comes amid a growing bi-partisan consensus that mass incarceration in America needs to be sensibly reduced. It is also aligned with the findings articulated by two former New York City Probation commissioners in a new Harvard Kennedy School Program in Criminal Justice report examining the nation’s community corrections system.

Citing probation and parole as a “significant contributor to mass incarceration,” the signatories to the Statement on the Future of Community Corrections—which includes the American Probation and Parole Association, the Association of Paroling Authorities International, the Association of State Correctional Administrators, the National Association of Probation Executives, the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies, and 35 current and former community corrections executives—is calling for people to be sentenced to probation and parole only when necessary, for supervision terms to be shorter, and for conditions of community supervision to be less onerous and tied more directly to client wellness and community safety. 

“The American justice system over relies on punitive methods to address crime, when research shows that there are more effective approaches that can keep communities safe, hold individuals accountable for their actions, and help restore hope to those impacted by crime,” said Susan Burke, President of the American Probation and Parole Association. “By calling for a change in how we supervise people, we are calling for a more fair system.”

The group is also recommending that the limited resources saved from this downsizing be used to invest in community-based programs that provide employment, substance abuse and mental health treatment to the remaining population—those that pose the highest public safety risk—as a way to significantly reduce that risk, improve public safety, and avoid unnecessary monitoring and supervision. A portion of these savings should also be used as a substitute for current probation and parole fees imposed throughout the U.S. as a way to pay for a structurally underfunded system, the group argues. These fees are levied against a community corrections population that is generally poor and under-resourced, making the fees unjust, counter-productive, and antithetical to the legitimacy of any system of justice.

Marcus M. Hodges, president of the National Association of Probation Executives (NAPE), stated “we need to reexamine how we are utilizing community corrections. Increased caseloads, without adequate resources is a threat to public safety. This current approach is resulting in higher levels of technical violations and is creating a ‘Probation to Prison’ pipeline that is counterintuitive to criminal justice reform.”

Michael Jacobson, Executive Director of the Institute for State and Local Governance at the City University of New York and former NYC Probation Commissioner, co-authored Less is More: How Reducing Probation Populations can Improve Outcomes. The report was published as part of the Harvard Kennedy School Program in Criminal Justice’s (PCJ) Executive Session on Community Corrections that ran from 2013 to 2016. He stated that “over the last 30 years, the numbers of people on probation have almost doubled to just less than 4 million people. This huge influx of cases has strained the already meager resources of probation agencies resulting in tremendous increases in technical violations back to prison, an absence of meaningful programmatic and behavioral interventions, people remaining on probation caseloads for no reason and the imposition of unfair, unjust and counterproductive supervision fees. It is time to significantly downsize probation which will allow for a smaller and better funded system and will increase public safety by allowing probation agencies to concentrate resources on those most in need of supervision and services.”

“Anyone who hopes to end mass incarceration needs to start by reducing mass supervision,” stated PCJ Senior Fellow, former NYC Probation Commissioner, and report co-author Vincent Schiraldi. “With almost as many people entering prison for violations of community supervision as new sentences, and twice as many people under supervision as incarcerated, reducing community corrections’ footprint and focusing resources on improving outcomes is a much-neglected solution to America’s incarceration dilemma.”

The report cites New York City as one example of a jurisdiction which simultaneously has substantially reduced the number of its residents supervised by probation today compared to the 1990s, yet has far less violent crime and far fewer people incarcerated (see The New York City Story). Other examples of jurisdictions that have taken steps to downsize their probation and parole footprint and improve outcomes can be found in this newly-released brief by the Pew Charitable Trusts Public Safety Performance Project.

“New York City’s standing as the safest and least incarcerated city in America is in large part the result of a local justice system-wide retooling,” Ana Bermúdez, current NYC Probation Commissioner adds. She goes on to say, “an upstream reduction in arrests paved the way for a different, and more impactful, engagement of those being supervised in the community; and also created the opportunity to expand the role of probation in new ways to achieve even further reductions in the jail and prison population. The essence of our ‘whole justice’ approach necessarily requires a one-size-fits-one pathway to successful completion for those under supervision, an intense focus on community engagement and the dedication and professionalism of a cadre of sworn probation officers who are second to none in carrying out the important work of NYC Probation in strengthening communities and changing lives throughout the five boroughs of our City.”

Michael Nail, Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Community Supervision and a member of the PCJ Executive Session, stated that “despite all the technological advances, research, and evidence-based practices that have emerged since beginning my career as an adult felony probation officer nearly 30 years ago, one thing doesn't seem to change. That one thing is that the number of people under our supervision continues to grow exponentially without adequate resources. As a result, we are destined to stay reactive rather than proactive. I prefer the latter so real and lasting difference can be made in the public safety arena.”

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