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October 16, 2023

Making the case against "mass supervision"

41hG5jF+RfLIn recent weeks, a number of new press pieces have discussed Vincent Schiraldi's notable new book titled "Mass Supervision: Probation, Parole, and the Illusion of Safety and Freedom."  (I have linked to some of those piece below.)  Today, I see that the author has this new opinion piece in the Washington Post under the headline "Parole and probation don’t work. Let’s think of a new approach." Here are excerpts:

There are nearly 4 million people in the United States on parole and probation — about twice as many as are incarcerated in our prisons and jails. These individuals are not quite free in the way that the rest of us take for granted. Their homes can be searched without a warrant; they can be incarcerated without representation and held without bail; they do not have the right to remain silent; and they can be convicted of, and imprisoned for, noncriminal acts based on evidence that does not need to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

Probation (a front-end sentence intended as an alternative to incarceration) and parole (early release from prison for good behavior) have been around since the 1800s. Both originated as alternatives to what was a new but increasingly brutal penitentiary system and were intended to rehabilitate people in the community. They are unsuccessful on both counts.

In the 1970s, rehabilitation became a dirty word in criminal justice, and the system took a sharply punitive turn, setting the country on a march toward mass incarceration and mass supervision. Probation and parole pivoted to a “trail ’em, nail ’em, and jail ’em” approach. This ushered in a mushrooming of hard-to-meet supervision conditions and imprisonment for noncriminal supervision violations. From 1980 to 2008, there was a fivefold increase in the number of people under community supervision — topping 5 million at the peak — alongside a similar expansion in prison populations. Nearly 1 in 4 people entering state prisons are incarcerated for a technical violation of their supervision, not a new offense, costing taxpayers $2.8 billion annually....

Mass supervision has managed to make us less free and no safer, all at great cost. As policymakers look to reform their supervision systems, they should consider reducing — or, for some groups, eliminating — probation and parole supervision, replacing them with services offered by nonprofit and volunteer groups, and carefully studying the outcomes.

A number of states have downsized supervision, saved money and improved public safety. In Missouri, policymakers reduced probation terms by 30 days for every 30 days of compliance while under supervision. In the first three years, 36,000 people were able to reduce their terms by 14 months, the number under supervision dropped by 18 percent, and reconviction rates for those released early were the same as for those discharged from supervision before the policy went into effect. If less supervision has better outcomes at lower cost, it’s plausible that no supervision — and investing the resulting savings in community supports such as housing, employment, and drug and mental health services — might yield even better ones.

After nearly two centuries, probation and parole have failed to prove their worth. Let’s carefully experiment with, and assiduously study, the alternatives instead.

A couple recent press pieces about this book:

From NPR, "Almost 4 million people are on probation or parole. Here's why that matters."

From Slate, "The Largest Form of Criminal Punishment in the United States Is Not Prison. It’s Still Awful."

October 16, 2023 at 10:51 AM | Permalink


Old version: The criminal owes a debt to society.

New version: Society owes a debt to the criminal. As in, "As policymakers look to reform their supervision systems, they should consider reducing — or, for some groups, eliminating — probation and parole supervision, replacing them with services offered by nonprofit and volunteer groups..."

Oddly, I really don't feel that I owe a debt to the pervert who rapes an eight year-old, or swindles Grandma out of her life savings, or carjacks me by sticking an icepick in my ear, or sells fentanyl to a 15 year-old. To the contrary, they belong in jail under harsh conditions for a very long time.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 16, 2023 4:11:24 PM

Bill - you refuse to even consider that a less punitive approach could possibly work and you consistently argue to consider the data that the author presents. Being more compassionate and caring can result in lower prison populations and less overall recidivism. Constantly dismissing the data that reducing punishment and crime can go hand in hand leads me to believe that you are an "old dinosaur". It is not about "owing a debt" but for me it is about the best end result at the least cost - prison and mass supervision doesn't result in more safety or less recidivism. Brett Miler

Posted by: Brett Miler | Oct 16, 2023 5:44:27 PM

Brett --

We had a less punitive approach, 1960-1980. Crime increased massively. We had a more punitive approach, 1990-2010. Crime decreased massively. Tell me again who won't consider the data.

And let me ask you this: Does (1) the criminal owe a debt to society, or (2) society owes a debt to the criminal? Which, (1) or (2)? No fudging.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 16, 2023 8:47:15 PM

Bill -
1) Your data analysis is overly simplistic. There were other factors that caused the increase in crime from 1960-1980 and other factors besides sentencing/police that caused the decrease in crime from 1990-2010. And by the way, how do you define "less punitive" and "more punitive"? I know you were around during the 1984 adoption of the SRA in the federal system so you have some experience with the increased severity of the federal system (guidelines, no parole) but the state systems handle most crimes that Americans care about - we don't have an agreed upon system as to how different states were more or less punitive than others.

2) I believe that we should get past blame and scorn and try to produce solutions that allow everyone involved in the criminal justice system productive lives going forward. To the extent that the criminal owes a debt to society, prison should be a last resort as the crazy high recidivism rates that you often note seems to cause individuals to reoffend again. A debt to society should be balanced with the need to assist individuals in leading productive lives.

Thank you for reading Bill even though you and I have fundamentally different views,
Brett Miler

Posted by: Brett Miler | Oct 16, 2023 9:09:19 PM

Brett Miller,

1) We are commenting on a blog, so a certain amount of oversimplification is expected.

There are other factors. I certainly don’t doubt it. That said, I find it impossible to make a credible case that the severity (or lack of) of sentencing didn’t play a significant role in the crime rates.

It’s not even controversial in the world of psychology that punishment decreases an activity. This is true from mice to humans.

2. Blame and scorn? I see a lot of it from you towards the CJS. It’s the criminals who make the choices. Considering they commit a crime before ever having bracelets put on, the first heap of blame and scorn goes on them.

The CJS will always be full of errors. The real question is who bears the brunt of those errors. Criminals or innocent people? I’d much rather take a chance that someone who may never commit another crime pays the price than a productive member of society if the criminal reoffends. That’s not to say we keep all in jail forever, but the close calls should go on the shoulders of the criminals.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Oct 17, 2023 2:10:32 AM

90%+ of the people sentenced to jail and prison will complete their sentences and be released back into society. Presently, about 700,000 people per year are released from jail and prison back into society. But society hasn't realized that it can punish someone too much, and that punishment extends to the way society treats its citizens following their release back into society. If 80% of landlords won't rent to former felons and they can't find decent jobs, no matter how well qualified they are, then society should not be surprised if former felons reoffend. Now, about 2/3 of former felons get arrested and charged with a new crime within 3 years of release. So, whose fault is this, the re-offending felon, or the society who wouldn't treat him fairly and give him any real kind of second chance following his release from prison. It's not EITHER/ OR; it's all interconnected.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Oct 17, 2023 11:18:49 AM

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