It’s time to stop the parole-to-prison pipeline

It’s time to stop the parole-to-prison pipeline
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Drug tests, appointments, rehabilitation classes, employment, and mountains of paperwork. These are all common requirements of probation and parole systems, which are mazes not easily navigable alone. One wrong turn, such as missing a rehab class, could send someone back to prison. A Pew study from September of 2018 exposed that this probation-to-jail cycle perpetuates the exact problem that community supervision programs were created to repair: overcriminalization.

The U.S. houses 25 percent of the world's prisoners, so it’s no surprise that many states have attempted to address this issue by utilizing probation and parole services. Parole is an early supervised release from prison, while probation either happens at the end of jail or takes the place of jail completely. Over the past decade, bipartisan support for both community supervision programs has risen significantly.

But while they may have eased capacity strains on jails and prisons, there has been little focus on the actual performance of community supervision services, or the burden they have created for local correction agencies.

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The sheer number of probationers and parolees has undermined the ability of program administrators to carry out basic responsibilities. But the most affected are the 4.5 million people — twice the currently incarcerated population — who actually take part in the programs.

As community oversight programs grow, so too do regulations that pose a threat for participants. Every newly developed technical requirement, from mandated meetings to voting restrictions, simultaneously creates another route back to incarceration — meaning probation and parole revocations directly feed incarceration growth. States are then left with the crushing effect of a failing cycle.

The Pew report reveals that in Georgia, 55 percent of prison admissions are made up of those who were on probation services. The number is a shocking 61 percent in Rhode Island. Parole revocations make up 54 percent of prison admissions in Arkansas and over 50 percent in Utah.

The two community supervision options, commonly thought of as good alternatives to incarceration, are nevertheless still resulting in a dismal ending behind bars.

Consider the case of Crystal Mason, a Texas resident who was serving probation for tax fraud in 2016. When the presidential election came around that November, she cast her ballot with confidence — because no one ever told her Texas law banned convicted felons from voting until after their sentence is complete. She was sentenced to five years in prison for violating her probation. The system failed her, by failing to provide accurate and complete information about the terms of her probation.

While personal responsibility is a major factor for every individual who participates in a probation or parole program, people can only be responsible when the circumstances are set up for successful reentry into society. In reality, the status quo is achieving the opposite.

We set people up for failure by throwing them into an increasingly overburdened system fenced in by technical rules. For example, Baltimore resident Donyelle Hall had been working diligently and paying off her probation fines in 2013 when she was sent to jail because she failed to ask permission to move to a different unit in her apartment complex. She couldn’t afford the $2,500 bond, so she spent a month behind bars for an obviously petty violation.

Every individual in a parole or probation program has unique needs that need to be addressed, rather than ignored under community supervision. But that can’t happen with an overburdened system that punishes parolees at every opportunity.

Other methods can reward good behavior, rather than rely on negative incentives in community supervision programs. The Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) of Utah, for example, suggests the use of incentive matrixes and earned compliance credits where probation and parole participants can “earn” time off supervision by following the rules.

When the mental, physical, and psychological needs of parolees are met and programs are set to address each person's situation, these people will have a much easier path toward a successful completion of parole or probation. Greater completion success will simultaneously benefit local governments. But without change, the cycle of incarceration to community supervision will continue to grow — while failing the people the criminal justice system is supposed to rehabilitate.

Molly Davis is a Policy Analyst at Libertas Institute, a free market think tank in Utah. She is also a writer for Young Voices.