(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Parole and Probation Reform Is Bigger Than Meek Mill

One in every 52 American adults lives under court supervision, costing taxpayers and making it harder for families to move on post-incarceration. Cities could benefit from a program that rewards good behavior with a shorter sentence.

Story by Maura Ewing

Published on

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Ron Bond’s troubles started, but didn’t end, with his drinking. This July, the 49-year-old construction worker celebrated five years of sobriety, but he still feels the repercussions of his addiction every day. He lives a generally peaceful life with his wife, son and two dogs in a quaint residential neighborhood in Columbia, Missouri, a college town about two hours west of St. Louis. One large dividing factor between Ron and his neighbors is that he isn’t allowed to drive, a condition of parole stemming from a 2010 charge for drunk driving — his fourth.

At a recent meeting with his Parole Officer, Neil Hill, the two men greeted each other like friends. “Well I’m glad to see you’re doing great,” says Hill. The two sit in a windowless room in the Boone County Probation and Parole office. Bond comes to these meetings twice a month to report any incidents or achievements, and sometimes to undergo a drug test.

“Yeah, I’m feeling good. I gained about fifteen pounds back that I had lost while I was inside,” he says and pats his round belly. Both men laugh. Two months earlier, Ron finished a 19-month bid in prison.

Ron will be on parole until at least January 2019. Since his DWI arrest seven years ago, his license has been suspended. The burden of this handicap has fallen on his family. While Ron chats with his parole officer, his wife, Teri Bond, waits in the parking lot. She picked him up from his worksite about half an hour away, drove him here, and will drive him back to work again before she starts her next shift at a local hospital where she is a surgical technician. That morning she woke up just a few hours after returning home from work to drive him to his work site. Ron’s 14-year-old son from a previous relationship, Aiden, lives with them full-time; so whenever she can, she carts the teen around too. “It’s been hard,” Teri says. Of her husband: “He’s got a lot of making up to do to me, to his mom and to Aiden.”

Ron is one of over 15,000 parolees in Missouri. Often overlooked in debates about mass incarceration, the number of people under community supervision in the past three decades has grown at comparable rates to prisoners. In 1980, there were 220,400 Americans on parole. Two-and-a-half decades later, in 2007, that number had grown more than three-fold to about 826,000. Today, the total number of people under probation and parole supervision is 4.7 million, or one in every 52 adults. This is more than twice as many people who are behind bars.

The millions of Americans under community supervision have gained public attention recently when rap star Meek Mill was sentenced to two to four years for a probation violation. The Philadelphia-born celebrity is 30 years old, and he has been under court supervision since he was 19 for drug and gun charges. The hashtag #FreeMeekMill has been trending social media for weeks, and in Philadelphia, posters of his face are on public busses, subway stops and street corners. About half of Philadelphia’s overcrowded jail cells are occupied by people in on probation violations.

Community supervision was designed in the 19th century as an alternative to incarceration that would both ease the growth of prison populations and allow people to carry on with their jobs, family obligations and so on in the community. Over the past four decades, in tandem with the trend toward harsher prison sentencing, the conditions became more restrictive. “It can feel like a suspended freedom to folks,” says Michelle Phelps, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota who has written extensively on prisons and probation. “If you’re already facing a lot of demands on your time and your resources, having all of these additional demands — which oftentimes come with very little actual practical help or assistance with things like finding and maintaining employment — can create a really challenging situation. In some cases, the requirements of supervision can actively derail people’s success.”

The constraints of supervision add to an already stressful time for parolees. Difficulties that people returning to the community from prison face include absence of social and professional networks, employer discrimination and policies barring people based on criminal record, all of which make it difficult to find stable employment and housing. This affects cities, too — especially areas struggling with homelessness and unemployment. Approximately 60 percent of people returning from prison can’t find work during the first year after their release. A landmark Harvard study published in 2014 found that six months after release from prison, over half of the participants relied on family for housing and financial support, 35 percent were living in temporary housing and 70 percent relied on public assistance.

“Incarceration has so much to do with poverty that when you’re talking about one, you’re also talking about the other,” says Ceciley Bradford-Jones, executive director of Philadelphia’s Office of Reintegration Services, a city agency that assists people returning to the community from prison. Until the stipulations of supervision don’t impede a parolee’s shot at gainful employment, she says the cycle of crime and incarceration will continue. “If they aren’t able to get steady and get on their feet, then often they revert to what they know. Often what they know is what got them into prison before.”

Parolees and probationers can be re-incarcerated for violating their terms of supervision with transgressions such as drinking a beer or driving a car, called technical infractions. Such demerits accounted for 55 percent of new prison admissions last year, according to the Council of State Governments.

Despite the multitude of petty offenses that can send a person back to jail, Missouri has reduced its parole and probation population by nearly 20 percent over the past five years, according to 2012 and 2016 data. It’s a dramatic reduction for any state and is particularly notable in a state otherwise known for an incarceration rate that continues to rise even as national numbers decline. Further, in August, lawyers at the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center in St. Louis filed a federal class action lawsuit against the state corrections department director and members of the parole board. The lawsuit alleges that the parole revocation process violates defendants’ right to a fair trial because it allegedly does not give defendants adequate written notice of allegations or the right to formal preliminary and final hearings.

The great strides Missouri has made to shrink the number of people under supervision is attributed to a promising policy that rewards good behavior with a shortened sentence. The policy, called Earned Compliance Credit, knocks 30 days off the end of a sentence for every infraction-free month — “30 for 30,” as P.O.’s and supervisees nicknamed it. A Pew Charitable Trusts review of the program’s first three years found that more than 36,000 people under supervision reduced their terms by an average of 14 months. This was significant for both the people under supervision and those who supervised them. The average P.O. caseload was reduced from 70 in 2012 to 59 in 2015. Recidivism rates remained unchanged. In other words, the people discharged early were no more likely to reoffend, and public safety was not compromised.

Not every supervisee qualifies for ECC — only those convicted of drug offenses or crimes that fall under the two most minor felony categories, such as resisting arrest, passing a bad check or driving under the influence. However, this category encompasses approximately 75 percent of the people under supervision in Missouri. For them, time can start coming off the backend of their sentence after two years of successful supervision.

This may not sound like a revolutionary idea — reward low-level ex-offenders for following the rules — but it represents a significant paradigm shift away from a system designed to catch the smallest step out of line, and toward one that celebrates rehabilitation. It also reduces the likelihood of recidivism for people like Ron, who could be caught on a technical infraction.

“Ultimately the significance is that it is shifting the goal of correctional supervision by saying that we don’t just put people under supervision so that we can track them and catch them when they break the rules,” says Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project who authored the evaluation. “The goal is to encourage them to help them be successful. It’s about switching the paradigm from punishing failure corrections to promoting success. We’ve had a system for decades that has been about trail ‘em nail ‘em and jail ‘em. It hasn’t produced very good results. The research is clear that rewarding positive behavior is much more effective,” he says.

Promoting Successful Re-Entry

Most states have some sort of mechanism for parolees to have their supervision terms reduced, but by and large, an early discharge requires approval by a parole board. Missouri was among the first to depoliticize the process by making the sentence reduction automatic. Slowly, others are following suit: at least fifteen other states have instituted similar laws, according to Gelb. Officials in other states are also considering introducing such legislation, Gelb said in an email, but it is too early to determine which bills will pass.

Making the early discharge an automated calculation was primarily intended to add certainty to the supervision process and reward positive offender behavior. It has increased the number of shortened sentences and reduced discrepancies between those released early, and those who are not, by creating a standardized process. It was also intended to motivate those on supervision to stay on track— parolees wouldn’t have to wonder, or be concerned about, parole board or court action, provided they continue to meet the supervision requirements that have been established. As Tom Hodges, the state’s Parole and Probation North Central Regional Administrator, says, the idea was to “further link it to performance.” Hodges was the department’s Chief State Supervisor when the program was implemented and a member of a governor-appointed working group that crafted the policy.

The decreased caseload for individual P.O.’s that has occurred through the Earned Compliance Credit was not the primary objective, Hodges says, but it is a secondary outcome that has enabled the Department of Corrections to more strategically use its resources. Now some officers work exclusively with higher-risk groups: people convicted of domestic violence and sex crimes, and people with serious mental illness. Officers in these units have fewer clients, spending more time with the individual and on related supervision monitoring and support. “In all three of those areas you’re looking at caseloads that the public and research say need more officer attention,” Hodges says.

Supervisees churned through the office throughout the day that I spent there. Of the seven parolees that I was supposed to chat with, two didn’t show up for their appointment. Not all are as lucky as Ron to have reliable transportation and a steady job. Though Columbia is not a large city, getting from one side to the other on the public bus system can require several transfers, taking up to two hours of travel time. Ron’s status as a AFL-CIO union member, which he has been since he turned 18, gives him immunity from losing his job for taking midday breaks to take care of legal issues, a protection most non-unionized employees do not have.

One parolee I met, Michael Carpenter, has earned 30 days off the end of his sentence every month since he qualified last November. The grey-haired army veteran proudly told me and his P.O. — this was the first time they met, his former P.O. had recently changed positions — of all his accomplishments. He has a steady gig as a cook at a hotel restaurant downtown, he moved from a VA shelter into his own apartment last month and he has stayed clean of methamphetamine. His addiction is what landed him here. In 2014, he was sentenced to seven years for drug possession and tampering with an automobile. He served a little over a year in prison and will do the rest of his time on parole so long as he’s not sent back for a violation. With Earned Compliance Credit, he could knock about four-and-a-half years off his parole time. “It’s something that I don’t necessarily cognitively think of every day, but it is something that I think about in the back of my mind,” he says of the time he’s earning. “I don’t want to jeopardize my chances of finishing my sentence and being off of parole. The biggest thing is, I don’t want to go back to prison. The smallest little hiccup sometimes could cause it.”

Ron knows the repercussions of those hiccups well. The 19-month prison sentence he completed this July was punishment for a probation infraction: He was caught driving with a suspended license in 2015. He admits it wasn’t the first time he drove while on probation; a few times he had hopped behind the wheel when Teri wasn’t around to take him on an errand or pick his son up. This time, though, was a longer trip. Aiden was visiting Ron’s mother in St. Louis, and the plan was that she would take him home, but she wasn’t feeling well and therefore didn’t want to drive. No one else was available, as it was a holiday weekend, so Ron went. “I was probably one of the few sober people on the road, on the fifth of July,” he says. On the way back to Columbia, he was pulled over for a minor traffic violation: driving too slow in the left lane.

He thought for sure the judge would have mercy on him; he had been sober for three years and the only convictions on his criminal record were prior DWIs. The prosecutor offered a plea deal of 120 days of “shock imprisonment,” a boot camp-style alternative to traditional imprisonment that’s heavy on rehabilitation services. Ron’s lawyer advised him to reject the offer, thinking they had a good chance the judge would let him off.

Teri remembers the day they went to court that December (the hearing was delayed several times because Ron had open-heart surgery that fall). She decided to stay outside the courtroom while the hearing went on. “He didn’t even kiss me. He thought it was going to be quick,” she says. They had dinner reservation in St. Louis that night. “The last time I looked through the door, he’s standing up and they’re cuffing him. My eyes get real wide and I’m like ‘What the hell is going on?’ He nods his head at me to come in, so I go into the courtroom and he yells at me from across the courtroom, ‘They’re taking me. They’re taking me away, babe.’” Teri wipes a tear from her eye as she recalls the event.

The next 19 months were hard on Teri. She watched Aiden on her own for part of the time Ron was locked up (his mother was having legal troubles of her own). “He rebelled hard when Ron was gone. Slamming his door, and yelling, ‘You’re not my mom’ at me, not wanting to go to school,” she says. “Aiden was mad. He was mad at his mom and he was mad at his dad, and I got the brunt of his anger. You know that was hard on me because I was trying, I was just trying to hold things together,” she says. Aiden, typically a good student, barely passed the sixth grade that year.

The financial stress was hard, too. She picked up another part-time job to make up for some of the lost household income, working over 50 hours a week. Still, most weekends she found time to go visit Ron. For most of his bid he was incarcerated at a prison just half an hour away. “Even though he needed to see me, I needed to see him as well,” she says, “I was really isolated. I had a real emotional time.”

The Bond family is looking forward to the day that Ron is completely free from the correctional system. Because of Earned Compliance Credits, Ron is headed there at a clip faster than he would in most other states. But, while he was incarcerated, Ron had a lot of time to think about what got him there. One of his conclusions was that perhaps he shouldn’t have gone to prison at all. He now has a lawyer arguing that he should have been awarded Earned Compliance Credits during a six-month period when his probation status was put on hold because of a domestic violence case that was ultimately thrown out. (Teri’s sister had called the cops on him while the couple was having an argument. Teri petitioned the court to drop the case.) Even after the case was dismissed, the Earned Compliance Credits he would have received during that time were not retroactively implemented.

On the basis of that alleged court mishandling, Ron’s lawyer, Kevin Schriener, filed a petition to vacate Ron’s sentence. He hasn’t heard back from the court. Whether or not the legal argument is upheld, Schriener says, the fact that Ron was still prohibited from driving after years of sobriety seemed irrational. “It seems we could use our resources a lot better,” he says.

Over the past three years, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government organized periodic convenings of a group of 30 criminal justice experts, including prosecutors, parole officers and reform advocates, to hash out a vision of an improved community supervision system. In July, the group published a paper outlining their conclusions. The thrust of their proposal is to shift from a paradigm of punishment to one that promotes success. The punitive ethic that guides most current supervision agencies “destabilizes communities, undermines the legitimacy of correctional agencies, erodes trust between communities and authorities, and increases recidivism among those under supervision,” the authors write. Rather, they suggest that people under supervision should be “viewed as having the potential to succeed,” given the resources to assist that success, and encouraged to improve behavior with rewards such as a reduced sentence. As the first state to implement Earned Compliance Credit, Missouri has offered a proving ground for this this paradigm shift.

Phelps, the University of Minnesota sociologist, says that this paper reflects a trend she has noticed in dialogues on reform. “Programs like the earned compliance credit are really exciting developments,” she says. “I think it’s a wonderful direction. Instead of asking ‘How do we use probation and parole to reduce the prison population?’ I think now the conversation is really about, ‘How do we reduce the scale of supervision all together?’ Including prison, probation and parole. How do we make prison, probation, parole, and jail, less onerous and more supportive? How do we assist people in getting their lives back on track?”

Ron recently got “limited driving privileges,” meaning that he can drive now but must take a breathalyzer test to turn his car on. “It’s been nice to drive legally,” he wrote me in a text message. “My son is a bit embarrassed when I drive him and his friends to the movies or whatever but it actually gives me an opportunity to have some open dialogue with a car load of 14-year-old future drivers.”

This article was produced with support by the Solutions Journalism Network’s Reentry Project, a collaborative news initiative about solutions to the challenges facing people returning from prison.

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Maura Ewing is a Brooklyn-based writer. She writes (mostly) about affordable housing and criminal justice. You can read more of her work here.

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