The scattershot array of state-run probation systems has evolved away from its original purpose of providing public accountability and rehabilitation without punishment, quietly transforming into a secondary criminal justice system that leaves even many of the system's enforcers uncertain about a fundamental question: What is probation supposed to be for? In a lengthy look at the history of probation systems and their current controversies, Reason magazine cites the rapid growth in cases, from a little over 1 million in 1990 to more than 3 million at the end of 2020. Though those numbers have declined over the last decade, it remains a staggering total that Kelly Mitchell, the executive director of the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan research institute at the University of Minnesota Law School, said has "become a sort of punishment in and of itself."
"The fear that you live with, it diminishes as time goes by a little bit, but it's always there—that I could be in the wrong place at the wrong time and, and have somebody else do something that I could go to prison for," said Jennifer Schroeder, whose Minneapolis drug charge netted a sentence of a year in jail and 40 years on probation, under a defunct Minnesota law capping probation terms at the maximum sentence. "My sentence would be 98 months if I ever violate my probation, no matter what. It's always a scary thing." Most states cap the length of misdemeanor probation sentences to two years and felony probation sentences to around five years. Many states have a "soft cap" on probationary term lengths, allowing felony probation to be extended for either an additional set amount of time, or indefinitely, for a number of reasons. Some states allow it to be extended for failure to pay restitution or fines and fees; others only allow that for violations, or if it's "in the best interest of justice." Most states allow for probation supervision fees, ranging from $10 to more than $200 a month, plus additional fees for probation conditions, such as treatment and programming. In many states, probation terms can be continued — sometimes indefinitely — until restitution, fines and fees, or both are paid. Over the last four years, 42–45 percent of prison admissions were for probation or parole supervision violations. Roughly a quarter of all admissions to prison are for technical violations of probation or parole, such as missing an appointment. The system, advocates say, sets people up to fail. "When we talk about people not being set up to succeed, it's much harder to hold down a job, pick up your kid from day care, go to medical appointments, etc., if you need to travel to check in with your probation officer," says Katherine Williams, the policy manager for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which works toward ending discrimination against formerly incarcerated people.