Punishment Beyond Prisons 2023: Tweet this Incarceration and supervision by state
May 24, 2023
BY: Leah Wang, FROM: Prison Policy Initiative, Full article with graphics here.
The U.S. has a staggering 1.9 million people behind bars, but even this number doesn’t capture the true reach of the criminal legal system. It’s more accurate to look at the 5.5 million people under all of the nation’s mass punishment systems, which include not only incarceration but also probation and parole.
Altogether, an estimated 3.7 million adults are under community supervision (sometimes called community corrections) — nearly twice the number of people who are incarcerated in jails and prisons combined. The vast majority of people under supervision are on probation (2.9 million people), and over 800,000 people are on parole. Yet despite the massive number of people under supervision, parole and probation do not receive nearly as much attention as incarceration. Policymakers and the public must understand how deeply linked these systems are to mass incarceration to ensure that these “alternatives” to incarceration aren’t simply expanding it.
We’ve designed this report specifically to allow state policymakers and residents to assess the scale and scope of their entire correctional systems. Our findings raise the question of whether community supervision systems are working as intended or whether they simply funnel people into prisons and jails — or are even replicating prison conditions in the community. The report encourages policymakers and advocates to consider how many people under correctional control don’t need to be locked up or monitored at all, and whether high-need individuals are receiving necessary services or only sanctions.
In this update to our 2018 report, we compile data for all 50 states and D.C. on federal and state prisons, local jails, jails in Indian Country, probation, and parole. We also include data on punishment systems that are adjacent to the criminal legal system: youth confinement and involuntary commitment. Because these systems often mirror and even work in tandem with the criminal legal system, we include them in this broader view of mass punishment. We make the data accessible in one nationwide chart, 100+ state-specific pie charts and a data appendix, and discuss how the scale and harms of these systems can be minimized.
The state of mass supervision in the United States
Nationwide, over 5.5 million adults — or 1 in 61 — are under some form of correctional control, whether incarcerated or under community supervision. To get a sense of how massive community supervision systems are, consider: If the population under probation and parole alone were its own state, it would be nearly the size of Oklahoma, and more populous than 22 other states, Puerto Rico, and D.C. And while the massive scale of probation (2.9 million) dwarfs the parole population (803,000), there are still more people on parole than in federal prisons and local jails combined. Mass incarceration is in many ways fueled by these systems of mass supervision, even though they are typically billed as “alternatives.”
We often hear about probation as a “lenient” sentence for someone facing possible time behind bars, and about parole as the act of a benevolent parole board, allowing an incarcerated person to be released before completing their maximum sentence. These one-dimensional views trick us into seeing these systems as entirely separate from incarceration, but they’re deeply linked. Staying in compliance with dozens of high-stakes, arbitrary rules is so unmanageable that experts call community supervision systems “a deprivation of liberty in their own right.” Moreover, probation and parole are often pathways into incarceration from the community, with violations of supervision accounting for 42% of prison admissions nationwide.
Understanding how each state fares in probation and parole in addition to its systems of confinement gives us a more accurate and complete picture of its reliance on punishment. Notably, some of the states that are the least likely to send people to prison are among the most punitive when other methods of correctional control are taken into account:
Looking closely at state variations in the use of various forms of correctional control reveals just how differently states mete out punishments; in particular, states vary tremendously in their use of community supervision.
For example, Wisconsin, a state that is near the national average of 566 per 100,000 residents when it comes to incarceration, seems much more punitive when you look at its full system of correctional control.
This graphic shows how many people are in different kinds of correctional control in Wisconsin. (We also made a graphic showing just the number of people in Wisconsin in different types of correctional facilities and confinement that some readers may find useful.)
Among the 50 states and D.C., Wisconsin ranks 24th in mass punishment, subjecting 1,569 per 100,000 of its residents to confinement or community supervision.
Considering each state’s total mass punishment system leads to other insights:
- Massachusetts and Utah have nearly identical rates of overall correctional control, but 69% of people in Massachusetts’ punishment systems are on probation, and only 28% are incarcerated in state, federal, and local jails. In Utah, on the other hand, only 39% are on probation, and a much larger share (46%) are incarcerated.
- Georgia is unfortunately well-rounded in its practice of mass punishment, with the fourth-highest incarceration rate nationwide (between Arkansas and Oklahoma) but a probation rate that eclipses all other states.
- Residents of New Jersey (1,706 per 100,000 under correctional control) are more than twice as likely to be caught up in their state’s mass punishment system compared to New York residents (811 per 100,000).
- Minnesota has a larger share of its population under correctional control than Alabama does, even though a resident of Minnesota is far less likely to be incarcerated than a resident of Alabama.
- Because of its large probation system, Rhode Island’s total correctional control rate rivals that of Louisiana, one of the most notoriously punitive states in the country (with the nation’s highest incarceration rate).
Shrinking the system, or squeezing the balloon? Changes in the community supervision population over time
It’s important to note that despite their massive size, community supervision populations nationwide have been shrinking for the past 15 years, driven by changes in probation. In fact, the total supervised population has dropped steadily since peaking in 2007; in 2021, there were fewer people on probation or parole than there had been since 1994. In the five years since our last version of this report, probation populations have shrunk by 19% nationwide. Of course, these trends vary greatly by state. Over those same five years, the number of people on probation grew 35% in Arkansas and 13% in Kentucky; probation populations grew by smaller proportions in four other states. Meanwhile, just two large states accounted for almost a quarter of the national drop, with Pennsylvania and California each cutting over 80,000 people from probation from 2016 to 2021.
By contrast, parole populations had been trending upward before the pandemic, growing 21% from 2000-2019. But during the first two years of the pandemic, the parole population made a significant turn, dropping by 7% in just one year. This recent decrease is notable and deserves further attention from state policymakers, who should ask why: Did more people successfully complete and exit parole supervision? Did state agencies revoke more people on parole and send them back to prison? Did parole boards release fewer people on parole?
Changes in probation and parole populations are not inherently bad: Increases may signify that states are moving people out of prisons, and decreases may signify that states are lowering barriers to successfully completing a supervision term, such as by capping term lengths, reducing unnecessary conditions, and using non-carceral sanctions for violations. On the other hand, increases could indicate that more people are being placed on supervision who would not have been previously (an effect called “net-widening”), or that people are being kept on supervision for longer terms. Similarly, reductions in supervision populations could be the result of more punitive sentencing (i.e., to jail), more punitive responses to violations (again, to incarceration), or fewer discretionary releases. In either case, advocates and policymakers equipped with state-level trends will be able to fight for changes that reduce the unintended harms of community supervision: unaffordable fees, burdensome conditions, and the use of incarceration for noncriminal violations.
Why probation and parole don’t “work” for so many — and often lead to incarceration
In theory, probation and parole are important tools that can reduce the number of people in prison and jail, where conditions are often dangerous. However, community supervision too often sets people up to fail, with incredibly high stakes. Failure can mean going to jail or prison for being accused of a new crime, no matter how minor, for struggling to follow vague and wide-ranging rules, or for simply not being able to pay monthly fees, restitution, or other legal-financial obligations. These “failures” are so common that less than half (44%) of people who “exited” parole or probation in 2021 did so after successfully completing their supervision terms; the rest came off of supervision for unhappier reasons. Many people exit supervision when their status is revoked, usually after a violation, which typically means a period of incarceration. In 2021, over 230,000 people shifted from community supervision into a prison or jail. This practice doesn’t just extract wealth from the poor, but wastes all taxpayers’ money: In 41 states covered in a study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, people returning to prison from probation or parole cost those states more than $8 billion in 2021.
We’ve long argued that noncriminal behaviors (like missed check-ins or nonpayment of fees) should not lead to incarceration — this strips people of any progress they’ve made, further destabilizes them and their families, and is a thoughtless use of public funds. Probation and parole officials can use more effective alternative sanctions and approaches, such as incentive-based systems, but too many continue to default to a “lock ‘em up” response.
Each state approaches supervision violations differently, but some rely on incarceration as a response more than others:
- Tennessee’s jails hold 9,280 people for an alleged violation of supervision, accounting for 30% of the total jail population;
- In both Georgia and West Virginia, over 15,000 people — 28% of the jail population — are behind bars for supervision violations;
- An alarming 39% of the jail population in Ohio is composed of people accused of violating the rules of their supervision.
Beyond the threat of jail time, other aspects of how community supervision is designed make little sense for people trying to get back on their feet. For starters, people under supervision must comply with numerous conditions. Too often, these conditions are unrelated to the original offense, including the bizarre and controversial. People on probation must comply with up to 20 requirements per day in order to remain in good standing. The prohibition on “associating” with others who have felony convictions or criminal records at all is an especially harsh and counterproductive condition, given the sheer number of people with records and the importance of social networks in obtaining employment, housing, and other necessities.
These conditions mean living under constant scrutiny and serve as a tripwire to harsher punishments. For example, required interactions with (and surprise visits from) parole and probation officers often lead to the detection of low-level “offending,” like drug use, or noncriminal, “technical” violations such as breaking a curfew. Appropriate responses to these might be fines, community service, drug treatment programs, or no criminal justice response at all. However, for people under supervision who are incarcerated for violations, the consequences are steep: jail time also means job loss, housing instability, difficulty caring for children and elders, interruptions in healthcare, and a host of other collateral consequences.
Probation and parole also affect already-marginalized populations in troubling ways:
- People under community supervision are in poorer health than the general public, with significantly higher rates of mental illness, chronic conditions, and substance use disorders than the general public. And supervised people — not unlike incarcerated people — often don’t receive appropriate care, whether due to lack of health insurance coverage or because health care providers don’t always take criminal legal system contact into account. A public health approach to common struggles of people on probation and parole, as opposed to a punitive one, will be critical to raising the rate of “successful” exits from supervision.
- Parole and probation fees are an enormous burden. People on supervision are overwhelmingly poor; supervision fees, often owed monthly for years, do nothing to further the missions of probation services departments, serving only as a violation waiting to happen. Similarly, charging people who can’t afford to pay for regular urinalysis tests, electronic monitoring devices, required programs, and other costs associated with their supervision only makes it harder for them to succeed.
- Supervision comes down hardest on Black Americans. Black Americans make up over 30% of those under community supervision, but just 12% of the U.S. adult population. They are also more likely to have their probation revoked than similar white and Hispanic Americans.
- For women, compliance with rigid rules and schedules is nearly impossible. For supervised women, the vast majority of whom (89%) are on probation, complying with conditions that involve travel and program participation can be particularly difficult due to family caregiving obligations, such as finding or paying for child- or elder-care so they can go to a meeting or required class. Formerly incarcerated women are also more likely to be homeless compared to similarly situated men, making reentry and compliance with supervision even more difficult.
With sweeping changes, parole and probation could be used as tools for decarceration
Our analysis shows that correctional systems exert control over the daily lives of millions of people, many of whom need help instead. While prisons and jails warehouse the most marginalized people with the fewest resources, probation and parole systems receive many of those same people who need social services, not strict conditions and outrageous fees. Supervision anticipates (and responds to) failure rather than success, resulting in a “revolving door” that burdens taxpayers and tears apart families.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Probation and parole systems, in particular, can be redesigned to help people exit the mass punishment system for good. States should invest in strategies to make these systems tools for decarceration rather than engines for incarceration. Parole should be used as a tool for shortening lengthy sentences, probation solely as an alternative to incarceration, and both should successfully set people up for a stable life. If state lawmakers are serious about criminal legal system reform, they must commit to having people released to supervision being in the care of, and not the effective custody of, state and community-based social service agencies — and only for a limited amount of time, under the least restrictive conditions possible.
To reform probation, prioritize highest-need cases and end the rest
Probation is, by design, an important diversion from incarceration. In cases where incarceration is the only practical alternative, the use of probation should be encouraged to minimize the broad social and economic harms of being locked up. At the same time, probation must not be a knee-jerk response to very minor crimes and “quality-of-life issues” and should prevent incarceration rather than just delaying it.
And when probation is reserved for people who are at a high risk of committing a crime and who require the most support, the savings derived from a smaller probation population can allow for reinvestment in community-based, voluntary services that can coexist with someone’s work, education, or parenting obligations.
In addition to reducing the use of probation, states must also focus on conditions, length, and collateral consequences of probation. New York, for example, has shown that serious probation reform is possible, without compromising public safety. In the 1990s and again in the 2010s, New York City reformed its probation system, reducing its population by 60% between 1996 and 2014. Even with far fewer individuals under supervision, violent crime dropped by 57% over the same period.
Other state reforms have been chipping away at the harms of probation over the past few years. While these changes are just a start to reducing our biggest correctional population, it’s critical to understand how many different aspects of supervision are in need of reform. For example:
- California law now limits most misdemeanor probation to one year, and most felony probation to two years, reducing the probation population by 33% and saving the state a projected $2.1 billion;
- In Vermont, some people will benefit from a “presumptive discharge” halfway through their probation term;
- In Georgia, it’s now easier for some people to end their probation early, thanks to clarified procedures around early termination;
- Massachusetts and Oregon eliminated probation fees;
- In Texas, people who complete supervision have their driver’s licenses and professional licenses reinstated.
Only with a thorough, equitable transformation of probation — and a reduction in the number of people under its control — can it be a true alternative to incarceration, rather than a system that expands its reach.
To reform parole, make it the rule, not the exception
Discretionary parole can — and should — be used to make earlier release possible for people serving sentences of incarceration. Whenever and wherever parole is granted, states should reduce its the length, conditions, and collateral consequences.
Instead of surveillance, states should focus on reducing the unnecessarily high barriers that people on parole face in securing education, employment, housing, and other vital resources. In most states, there is tremendous room for improvement, both in the availability and value of parole.
Fortunately, parole has become a major avenue for state-level criminal legal reform. For example:
- New York enacted major legislation intended to reduce unnecessary incarceration for noncriminal, “technical” offenses of parole, resulting in hundreds of people becoming immediately eligible for release, and thousands more no longer living with arrest warrants for these technical offenses;
- Maine formed a Commission to Examine Reestablishing Parole, whose final report in 2022 recommended restoring discretionary parole after over 40 years without this form of release. Lawmakers introduced a bill to the Maine legislature that would do so.
- California expanded its Elderly Parole Program, addressing the crisis of an aging prison population and acknowledging that older people are highly unlikely to commit new crimes;
- Louisiana legislation restored parole eligibility to certain people, and reduced the number of years others must wait to automatically be eligible for parole consideration.
Incarceration is easily our nation’s most punitive, harmful endeavor, tearing apart communities and families, and sending cascading ripple effects to all of us. But this report provides another metric for understanding where each state falls within the national landscape of mass punishment. Our state-specific breakdowns (below) suggest where state advocates and policymakers might start when developing proposals for meaningful justice reform, especially when probation and parole feed people right back into incarceration.