July 23, 2020


Building Safer Communities by Reforming Parole

By: Reggie Wallace

Last month, AF hosted the third installment of a national series on criminal justice reform, this time focusing on reforming community corrections programs.

Community corrections and supervision is a widely overlooked player within the criminal justice system. As defined by the National Institute of Justice, community corrections programs oversee offenders outside of jail or prison through methods such as probation — correctional supervision within the community — and parole —conditional, supervised release from prison. These methods were created with the intention of easing prison crowding and costs while also creating a program to prevent future criminal behavior through rehabilitation and community reintegration. 

As pragmatic as the original objective of community corrections is, it has proven to be far less effective. According to Greg Glod, policy fellow at Americans for Prosperity, community corrections is a major driver of the prison population, with 45 percent of national prison admissions coming from supervision violations. Of those 45 percent, 25 percent are due to technical violations, such as missed meetings or failed drug tests. This causes a considerable amount of strain on resources and takes away focus from high risk individuals who should be in prison rather than people who make small mistakes. The program has therefore metamorphosized from one meant to be an alternative to prison into another route towards prison.

Why are so many people being sent back to prison? According to Julie Grace, a policy analyst at the Badger Institute, criminal studies have shown that about half of those sent back are for violating the multitude of statutes within the community corrections program. An important and detrimental detail to the program is that many states do not have a cap on how long these community supervision periods last. Some individuals are placed on probation for 5-10+ years. Being subject to stringent guidelines for such a long period of time inevitably results in regression. An individual may have committed a small crime and now must be monitored for several years. This creates a hostile environment where past offenders have a significantly higher chance of being sent back to prison.

Due to a lack of statutory precision, the types of guidelines and rules for these individuals on supervision are often broad and unrelated to the crime committed. Moreover, the list of conditions that must be met to avoid violations of parole or probation can be long. Specific conditions may include:

-No alcohol or illegal drug use

-No smoking

-Do not associate with people who have been involved with criminal activity

-Avoid places associated with criminal activity

-Do not travel out of state without permission

-Obey all laws (Including minor laws such as jaywalking)

-Submit to random drug or alcohol testing

-Regularly meet with your probation officer

-Appear at any scheduled court appearances

-Pay any fines or restitution (money to victims)

Conditions can be both less extensive or more extensive depending on the judge. If any violations occur, the individual is entirely at the discretion of their parole officer on whether they go back to prison for another 5 years or more. It is extremely unhelpful for past offenders and their families.

The solution, as Glod speaks to, is first, a graduated system of conditional violations where past offenders are presented with constructive alternatives rather than outright imprisonment. And second, an amendment to the community corrections program which standardizes lengths of probation periods based on the crime committed. These modifications to the program would both reduce the rate of incarceration of past offenders based on overarching conditions and create a more effective program which focuses on rehabilitation.

For more on the subject, watch the full discussion here, and see the other installments of the series on civil asset forfeiture and qualified immunity.