New Initiative Launches to Help Cities Reform Probation and Parole

(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

In San Francisco, more than 50 probation and parole chiefs from across the nation along with representatives from every major national probation and parole association announced the launch of EXiT: Executives Transforming Probation and Parole. Staffed by Columbia University’s Justice Lab and operating with funding from Arnold Ventures, Galaxy Gives, and the Tikkun Olam Foundation, the initiative hopes to address two central elements of the criminal justice system that have long been overlooked in the United States: probation and parole.

Announced during a press conference Monday at the American Probation and Parole Association Annual Training Institute, EXiT is focusing its efforts on reforming the role that probation and parole play as two of the largest drivers of incarceration in the U.S. criminal justice system.

There are currently 4.5 million people on probation or parole (more than twice as many as the 2.2 million people who are incarcerated), constituting a nearly four-fold increase since 1980. In 2017, one in every four people who entered prisons did so because of non-criminal, technical supervision violations at a cost of $2.8 billion.

“Mass supervision is the largest and most forgotten part of the system,” says Vincent Schiraldi, a Co-Chair of EXiT’s steering committee and Co-Director of the Columbia Justice Lab. “You wouldn’t know that based on public dialogue, even though people on probation and parole are one dirty urine test or one missed appointment away from being incarcerated.”

Like incarceration, Americans on probation and parole are largely people of color. While one in 55 Americans overall are in the mass supervision system, one in 23 black people are on probation or parole. Like the incarceration system, mass supervision has also been privatized. These companies work for counties and other jurisdictions for free but make money by charging people on parole and probation for supervision and other services like drug treatment programs required by their probation or parole conditions. Therefore, mass supervision is particularly punitive for the poor, since an inability to pay can mean a ticket back to prison. Although supervision issues are present across the country, many of them are taking place in inner cities.

This is the broken system that EXiT hopes to address.

By working with advocates, policy makers, government officials, and executives — probation and parole chiefs in particular — the group ultimately aims to reduce the number of people on probation and parole. EXiT plans to do so in part by transforming the system from a punitive one to one that hinges on rewarding and reinforcing positive behaviors by reducing supervision sentences accordingly. Testifying at hearings and providing thought leadership surrounding cutting-edge parole and probation practices in order to ultimately connect people to the resources they need to be successful after prison, such as mentorship and affordable or free programs, are other prongs of EXiT’s approach.

One example of change that Schiraldi gives is taking an approach to probation that lops thirty days off of a probation sentence for every 30 days free of violations that, an approach that incentivizes positive behaviors rather than punishes slip-ups with threats of a return to incarceration. “If people string together a year and a half with no violations, you’ve done a good job there,” he says. “They learn that behavior of not messing up, of not taking drugs.”

While changes like these always come at a cost, Schiraldi reasons that the $2.8 billion annually it requires to imprison people for supervision violations can be diverted to funding some of the changes EXiT would like to see. The task might seem daunting, but Schiraldi is hopeful based on the buy-in he has witnessed so far.

A multi-year Harvard Executive Session on Community Corrections paved the way for what would become EXiT by making it clear that even those in the mass supervision sector felt like it needed to change. “For three years we were having this discussion and it became apparent that a lot of people thought probation and parole needed to be reformed. People were saying caseloads were too large, there were too many rules, and charging poor people money [was problematic]. A lot of people having that conversation are now on [EXiT’s] steering committee,” Schiraldi says. “We think it’s unusual for so many government bureaucrats to say ‘my bureaucracy should be smaller.’”

He also notes early successes on the city level in particular are contributing to his hopeful view.

In the 1990’s, New York City launched an effort to reform its probation system that resulted in a 60 percent drop in its supervision population between 1996 and 2014. While some might have assumed that move would have put public safety at risk, the Big Apple saw a 57 percent drop in violent crime over the same time period.

Los Angeles began taking steps towards parole and probation reform in 2011. Those changes led to just 30 parolees returning to prison because of technical supervision violations in 2017, and the efforts toward reform are still continuing today.

Philadelphia is also prioritizing mass supervision reform thanks to a focus on the issue from the city’s district attorney, Larry Krasner, in an effort to address the 40 percent of the city’s prison population that’s there because of probation or parole violations.

“Philly is paying for people to be in their jails who didn’t commit new crimes,” Schiraldi explains, noting that in many cases drug treatment is really what people need. He ponders how people would respond if the person in question was their husband, sister, son, or mother. “You’d never dream of saying ‘They’ve got these [addiction] problems. They’re not complying [with their parole conditions]. Let’s send them to jail for six months and see how that works.’ No one would do that to people they care about.”

While Schiraldi says that long-term change has to occur at the state level through legislation, there’s plenty of room for cities to act, for mayors or mental health workers to come together and call for change.

“There’s an enormous amount of discretion. None of these people with technical violations must be sent back to prison,” he says. “Let’s incentivize them to come to appointments, give them better programs and housing options, and pay for it with the money we’re saving by not sending them to our jails.”

Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

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Tags: incarceration