Harvard Study: Probation is a Driver of – Not a Solution to – Mass Incarceration

March 20th, 2019 by Attorney Dan Carman

Lxington criminal defense

Michael Jacobson has a harsh assessment of our current probation system. He is the director of City University of New York’s Institute for State and Local Government and the co-author of a recent paper highlighting the shortcomings of probation in the U.S., and we should all take his concerns seriously.

He calls our probation system “the most systematically underfunded, and the least powerful of all criminal justice agencies,” while his co-author Vincent Schiraldi points out that probation, which was originally intended as an alternative to incarceration, has “grown too large for jurisdictions to adequately fund and has become a major contributor to mass incarceration.”

In other words, probation is no cure. It’s part of the mass incarceration illness plaguing the United States. In just three decades, the number of people on probation has nearly doubled, and the individuals on probation can too easily commit technical violations that get them in deeper trouble with the law, creating what reform advocates refer to as a “Probation to Prison” pipeline.

The Burden of Probation on People Under Supervision

When you’re on probation, you literally pay a big price. People on probation are often forced to pay for probation supervision fees, court costs, urinalysis tests, electronic monitoring fees and other fines. Critics of our probation system say that it not only places an unfair burden on people on probation, it usually doesn’t work. There are too few incentives that encourage people to reform and too many opportunities for further run-ins with the law.

The burden isn’t just on people on probation. It strains our system, too. Nearly 5 million people in the U.S. are under supervision, and we lack the supervisors and resources to keep track of the millions on probation.

What are Better Alternatives?

The recent report is in many ways an indictment of the entire criminal justice system. Criticisms echo those of all facets of our approach to handling crime and the people accused of it. It disproportionately disadvantages minorities and people with financial difficulties. Our system lumps people accused of minor crimes in with everyone else and uses probation, incarceration and other common punishments as a cure-all for addressing crime, when we need a more nuanced, less heavy-handed approach to most offenders.

The authors of the report favor community-based programs that encourage employment, substance abuse treatment and mental health counseling to people that pose no threat of violence to others. They also suggest using probation less often.

Our system too frequently uses probation as punishment when a lighter touch is called for. We enter people in a system that makes life more difficult and discourages their reform. We should be asking how effective our approaches to offenders really are and, when the answers consistently point to a broken process, embrace a new path forward for people accused of crimes.

The good news is that there is the political will to change the system. On the heels of criminal justice reforms in 2018, there’s no reason to stop moving forward. We must look at every aspect of our system to find ways to create a fairer and more effective system.

If you need to speak with a criminal defense attorney in Lexington, Kentucky, we encourage you to reach out to Dan Carman to speak to our team. We have helped clients receive fairer treatment in our justice system. Call us or fill out our online contact form to get started.