Want to cut the prison population? Start by tackling probation reform
President Trump recently noted the 3,000 individuals who will be released from prison next month thanks to the landmark First Step Act. Yet each day, we are sending 95,000 more people to prison in their place. We are sending them there not because they have committed new crimes, but because they have violated conditions of parole and probation. Adam Gelb, director of the Council on Criminal Justice, rightly calls this the “dirty little secret” of the criminal justice system in the United States.
Indeed, new research by the Council of State Governments shows that a quarter of all state prison admissions are due to minor technical violations of conditions of probation, an alternative to prison time, and parole, the release of an individual from prison before their sentence is complete. While on probation or parole, individuals are placed under community supervision and presented with a list of conditions to follow. Technical violations of these conditions can include things like missing a meeting with an agent, breaking curfew, or failing to pay fines and fees, none of which are crimes in and of themselves. Yet in some states, more people wind up behind bars for these types of violations than for actual crimes.
The tough on crime contingent might not see this as a problem. After all, technical violators got the benefit of supervision rather than incarceration after committing a crime. There should be zero tolerance approach to further misbehavior. Probation agents, prosecutors, and even judges espouse this belief. Parts of the general public still believe this as well. Such an approach is shortsighted. Community supervision is supposed to help people reenter society and set them up to succeed. Instead, it too often increases incarceration numbers without improving public safety.
Supervision conditions often set individuals up to fail from day one. One standard probation or parole condition is the payment of fines and fees, which sometimes amount to thousands of dollars, regardless of the level of poverty of an individual. Another common condition forbids these individuals from being around those with felony records or from associating in general with those deemed “disreputable people,” often barring them from their homes and communities. Such tough conditions often fail to consider the transportation difficulties, family challenges, and housing issues that so many people on probation or parole have to face.
The lack of basic human decency toward those on probation or parole is appalling. Topeka Sam, founder of the Ladies of Hope Ministries, was still under supervision when she started traveling across the nation speaking and advocating change in the criminal justice system. However, instead of celebrating her success, she was told by the supervisor of her probation officer that her “constant travel” was reminiscent of that of a drug dealer.
Sadly, imprisoning technical violators often drives them even deeper into the criminal justice system. With a prison sentence, individuals can lose their jobs, their homes, and their children, which are all of the important social supports they had formed in their community, making them more likely to return to crime. Imprisoning individuals for technical violations is also costing taxpayers to the tune of $2.8 billion in incarceration costs.
We should save prison beds for those who have committed serious and violent offenses instead of for those who have broken curfew or failed to pay a probation fee. Instead of imprisoning technical violators, we should hold them accountable in the community in ways that do not harm public safety. By eliminating prison terms for technical violations, or at least by capping the length of their prison stays, states can work to reduce their prison numbers in a significant way. Along with the reform of supervision conditions, we can work to limit probation to those who really need it and to divert the many lower risk individuals away from the system altogether.
If there is one foundational value that we can adopt in the criminal justice system to change its ethos, it is human dignity. It should not fall by the wayside when people are released from prison. It is even more important as we welcome individuals back into the social fabric of our communities. The Council of State Governments report guides states in asking how they can limit the supervision to prison pipeline. With this data, states hold the potential to reform their supervision practices in ways that improve public safety, yield valuable cost savings, and respect the human dignity of all.
Nila Bala is associate director of criminal justice and civil liberties with the R Street Institute. She served as a former public defender of Baltimore City.