Reforming the probation and parole system

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: reforming parole and probation. 

Efforts to do that have come in bits and pieces over the years. Last year, Congress passed the First Step Act. The bipartisan effort reformed some mandatory minimum sentences. It increased funding for vocational training and education in prisons.

Several states have taken similar steps.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: But reform advocates say there’s still a long way to go. They’ve set their sites on fixing the system. 

Now, to clarify: probation occurs prior to and often instead of prison time. Parole is an early release from prison. Each has rules that criminal defendants must follow.

REICHARD: These ideas developed during the 19th century as an alternative to incarceration. The aim was to help people change their bad behaviors outside of prison, by giving them social support and accountability.

But a new report says it’s not working for many offenders. WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg explains.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Rapper Meek Mill’s experience with parole started in 2008. He was 18 years old when Philadelphia police arrested him on illegal gun possession and drug charges. Mill spent eight months in prison. And in a 20-18 interview, Mill told CNN he’s still on parole … 10 years later.

MILL: I’ve been on probation since I was 19-years-old. I’m 31-years-old. Growing up in the system I always thought this is normal.

In 2014, Mill violated parole guidelines when he performed a concert outside Pennsylvania. A judge sent him back to prison for five months. 

Then in 2017, police arrested Mill for a fight in an airport and for popping wheelies on a dirt bike without a helmet. A judge sentenced him to two to four more years in state prison. Prosecutors later recommended Mill’s conviction be overturned and released him last year. 

Since then Mill has advocated for changes to parole and probation programs. He says the systems’ rules keep people in a vicious cycle. 

MILL: We are like trapped inside of a system that’s extremely hard for us to get out and control. (2.15) I don’t feel like anyone is addressing it.

Many criminal justice advocates agree. The U.S. incarcerates more people each year than any other country in the world. More than 2 million people

Megan Quattlebaum is the director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center. She says a new CSG study suggests a big part of the mass incarceration problem is actually a probation and parole problem. 

There are 4-and-a-half million people on probation and parole in the United States. Quattlebaum says the CSG study shows nearly half of all people in state prisons, like Meek Mill, are there because they violated parole or probation. That’s 600,000 people. 

QUATTLEBAUM: It suggests that these two forms of community supervision, which are both meant to help people stay out of prison and be successful in their communities free of crime, are not working remotely as we intended them to.

Quattlebaum says the system is not only failing parolees and probationers. It’s also failing taxpayers.

QUATTLEBAUM: Our country’s spending about $9 billion a year to incarcerate those folks in state prison. That’s about equivalent to the entire budget of the state of Rhode Island.

Vincent Sheraldi is the co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab. He says the programs grew the same way the United States’ prison population swelled: tough-on-crime policies. 

Ideally, parole and probation officers would take on a dual role: part law enforcement, part social worker. But Sheraldi says overburdened caseloads are forcing officers to lean heavily toward law enforcement. 

SHERALDI: So for probation officers overloaded with cases of people who have lots and lots of problems and not a lot of resources out there to help them with. There is one resource that seems infinite for that probation officer: prison.

Craig DeRoche is with Prison Fellowship Ministries. He says another problem is the probation and parole rules themselves. He explains there are two types of rule violations. 

DEROCHE: The first is technical. Uh, which means you didn’t show up on time, you didn’t fill out your paperwork correctly. The second is when someone actually violates their probation and parole by creating a new crime. Things like, um, using drugs or alcohol.

DeRoche says technical violations are landing people in prison far too often. The C-G-S study found they accounted for a quarter of all state prison admissions. 

DEROCHE: So if someone misses an appointment or a time, they’ll be returned to incarceration in some states for the remaining length of their sentence. So somebody for a technical violation could return to prison for four years.

Another issue is the length of time people are put on probation and parole. DeRoche says the more time someone spends on parole or probation, the higher the odds they’ll break a rule.  

DEROCHE: We’ve seen cases where people have 20 years of probation and there’s absolutely no science or evidence of being on probation for 20 years is effective for the state or for public safety.

DeRoche says despite the numerous issues that need reform… he is encouraged. Awareness in state governments and the general public is rising. That’s why steps toward change are beginning to take place.

DEROCHE: We’re seeing that the public is understanding there is a way of bringing about a justice system that restores… but not in a way that, that wastes resources and pushes somebody further away from being a good citizen on the other end of repaying their debt.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.

Meek Mill/Facebook

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Reforming the probation and parole system

  1. Jill says:

    Great article! But I’ve been a probation officer for almost 24 years and those of us that actually do the job, along with parole officers will give you another side of the story. They may go to prison on “technical”, petty things as the warden says but you have no idea how many things an officer and the court have tried with the offender long before the defendant goes to prison. Never going to fix the problems until you fix the heart and homes of sooooo many people. Just my two cents but I love your writing Sarah!

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