“No one thinks people should be sent to prison for a missed curfew or faulty paperwork — and yet this report shows these kinds of minor technical violations are contributing significantly to state prison populations,” said Juliene James, director of criminal justice for Arnold Ventures, a philanthropic group that works on criminal justice issues and which helped fund the study.
“This should serve as a wake-up call that our probation and parole systems are not healthy, not functioning as intended, and need to be reformed,” she said.
More than 4.5 million U.S. adults, or nearly 2 percent of the population, are currently on parole or probation, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. For many of them, the terms of their post-prison supervision can be onerous and require them to submit to regular drug testing, mandatory visits with corrections officers and searches, as well as seek preapproval to change residences or travel out of state. Any violation of those terms can put them back in lockup.
“Oftentimes these technical parole violations, when they result in incarceration, [they] really lead to further crime and further violations,” John Wetzel, who oversees the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, said during a conference call this week, Imprisonment “severs the pro-social supports that keep individuals sober and safe,” he added. “We eliminate their ability to keep gainful employment.”
In at least five states — Utah, Kansas, South Dakota, Kentucky and Missouri — such technical violations account for more than half of all prison admissions. Such numbers underscore the extent to which the nation’s sky-high incarceration rate is partly a function of probation and parole policies.
“If we want to address mass incarceration we need to pay attention and take some decisive steps on probation and parole,” James said.
She offered a laundry list of policy changes to address the issue: “Shorten the length of probation and parole sentences. Cap or prohibit returns to prison for violations, especially technical violations. Limit supervision rules to those that matter. Put fewer people on supervision in the first place, and we can and should eliminate fees that can perpetuate poverty and act as a barrier to success.”
Efforts to reform probation and parole have gained stem in recent years, in part due to widespread public concern over the treatment of rapper Meek Mill, who has been on probation for more than a decade stemming from gun and drug charges. Mill repeatedly has been accused of violating the terms of his probation for, among other things, popping wheelies on a dirt bike, being “disrespectful” to probation officers, and traveling without proper approval.
The share of state prison admissions stemming from parole or probation violations swells to 45 percent when you include people who commit new crimes while out on supervision.
Megan Quattlebaum, director of the Justice Center, said that “many states have made recidivism reduction a public safety priority, but the harsh reality is that supervision fails nearly as often as it succeeds.”