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Columbia Justice Lab


Shaping Justice for the Future

Too Big to Succeed

January 29, 2018

In this new report, some of the nation’s leading community corrections administrators discuss the consequences of the tremendous growth in probation and parole supervision in the United States over the past several decades. They argue that the number of people under supervision needs to be cut in half.

Originally designed as alternatives to incarceration, the authors find that probation and parole are a deprivation of liberty in their own right and have become key drivers of mass incarceration by serving as a trip wire to reincarceration for many of those under supervision. The authors argue that community corrections populations have risen alongside prison and jail populations but that community corrections has not been funded adequately to meet the needs of a population of individuals beset by poverty, unemployment, inadequate housing, mental illness and substance use. Since it is highly unlikely that governments will increase funding to probation and parole, the only realistic alternative is to reduce the number of people under community corrections and preserve some of the funds to provide assistance to those who remain under supervision. The paper discusses several examples of jurisdictions that have done so.

Read the report: Too Big to Succeed: The impact of the growth of community corrections and what should be done about it

Read the Executive Summary: Too Big to Succeed

Community Corrections Leaders weigh in on Too Big to Succeed:
“The ability to focus on those more in need of supervision and support is critical to reducing unnecessary incarceration and supervision,” stated Ana M. Bermúdez, Commissioner, New York City Department of Probation. “Our justice system-wide retooling, which has included a significant reduction in arrests, has paved the way for New York City for a more impactful engagement of those being supervised in the community, and has also created the opportunity to expand the role of probation in new ways to achieve even further reductions in the jail and prison populations. The essence of our 'whole justice' approach necessarily requires a one-size-fits-one pathway to successful completion for those under supervision, an intense focus on community engagement and the dedication and professionalism of a cadre of sworn probation officers who are second to none in carrying out this important work.”

“For too long, we have been blind to the paradoxical, regressive effects of probationary dispositions. It’s time to recognize the ‘probation to prison pipeline’ and, in response, institute the reforms necessary to bring probation back in line with the vision of probation’s founder, John Augustus.” - Ron Corbett, former Commissioner, Massachusetts Probation Department; former Executive Director, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court; past-President, National Association of Probation Executives.

“Moving probation and parole agencies in the direction of smaller caseloads, incentivizing client progress, reducing reliance on supervision fees, and more effective rehabilitative efforts will improve public safety and reduce the social costs the system currently imposes.”  - Jim Cosby, JLC Executive Coaching & Consulting; former Director of the National Institute of Corrections; former Assistant Commissioner, Tennessee Department of Correction; former State Director, Tennessee Board of Probation & Parole

“Under criminal justice reform, the same energy and focus that produced good outcomes (reduction of incarceration population) in prisons needs to be utilize to re- examine community corrections. Potentially, more harm, than good will occur if we don’t make significant changes in community corrections.” - Marcus M. Hodges, President, National Association of Probation Executives.

“For decades the numbers of people under probation and parole supervision have increased geometrically, with only marginal increases in resources. As a result, community corrections services have been stretched to the breaking point in an attempt to deal with ever increasing numbers of low level people placed under supervision as well as huge numbers who are under supervision for far longer than makes any sense in terms of public safety. The time has come to significantly downsize the numbers of people under supervision, which will allow community corrections agencies to focus their resources on those who truly pose a threat to public safety. This common sense reform will result in a fairer, more efficient and effective system and ultimately greater public safety.” - Michael Jacobson, Director, Institute for State and Local Governance, City University of New York (CUNY); Professor, Sociology Department, CUNY Graduate Center; former New York City Probation and Correction Commissioner.

“As we come to realize that we must end mass incarceration in America, we must also understand that ending even more massive supervision under probation and parole is also required. The massive number of people on probation and parole is a waste of resources and not only unnecessarily impedes individuals from being successful, it also distracts community corrections professionals from effectively supervising and engaging those who should be under supervision.” - David Muhammad, Executive Director, National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform; former Chief Probation Officer, Alameda County (Oakland), CA; former Deputy Commissioner, New York City Probation.

“Probation and parole have grown far beyond what anyone could have imagined when they were created as alternatives to incarceration in the 1800s so that now the 4.7 million people on probation and parole number twice as many as are incarcerated in America,” stated Vincent Schiraldi, Senior Research Scientist at the Columbia Justice Lab, former New York City Probation Commissioner and former Washington, DC director of juvenile corrections. “Instead of serving as an alternative to incarceration as they were originally designed, they contribute to mass incarceration by creating trip-wires to revocation and reincarceration. We need to cut the number of people under supervision in half and focus services and supports on those remaining on probation and parole to improve their chances for success.”

“Why can't we divert a significant number of people from being on probation in the first place?” asks Carl Wicklund, former Executive Director of the American Probation and Parole Association. “Consider the number of probation failures leading to incarceration. Also, how the collateral consequences of being on probation often disrupt the prosocial protective factors one may have had prior to the commitment of a crime. Thus, it seems counter-productive and a set-up for failure to place someone who is not a public threat on probation, constructing artificial barriers and challenges that most citizens would find impossible to abide by or manage.”

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