Nearly two million people are behind bars in the U.S., but this number doesn’t capture the true reach of the criminal justice system in the country. In a new report, Punishment Beyond Prisons: Incarceration & Supervision by State, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) shows how probation and parole, along with mass incarceration, has 5.5 million people in what the organization terms "a system of mass punishment and correctional control."
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. Most people under supervision are on probation (2.9 million), and over 800,000 are on parole.
PPI contends that people under supervision live under a harsh set of rules that often lead them back to incarceration.
“Probation and parole are often talked about as a more ‘lenient’ approach than incarceration, but these programs are insidiously designed to extend the reach of mass punishment beyond the prison walls,” said report author Leah Wang. “To understand the full scale of the carceral system in a state, you have to look at how — and how often — probation and parole are used, and whether they strengthen our communities or simply serve as a revolving door to prison.”
The report ranks states by their use of correctional control, concluding that state policies "vary tremendously."
--Massachusetts and Utah have nearly identical rates of overall correctional control, but 68% of people in Massachusetts’ punishment systems are on probation, and only 28% are incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails. In Utah, only 39% are on probation, and a 46% are incarcerated.
--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 total correctional control rate rivals that of Louisiana, a notoriously punitive state.
PPI says that community supervision sets people up to fail, by forcing them to comply with vague and wide-ranging rules and fees, and failure to comply can mean going to jail or prison. These "failures” are so common that less than half (44%) of people who left parole or probation in 2021 did so after successfully completing their supervision terms.
Many of the rest were reincarcerated for “technical violations,” such as missing a check-in or nonpayment of fees, which are not crimes in any other circumstance.
Wang said that, “When used properly, probation and parole can be tools to keep people out of prisons and jails. Instead of burdening people with onerous requirements that make it more — not less — difficult for them to build stable lives, state and local leaders should focus on connecting people with the services and supports that help them meet their social, economic, and health needs.”
Some states have improved probation and parole and reduced the number of inmates. California instituted new time limits on probation terms that are projected to save $2.1 billion. New York enacted legislation to reduce unnecessary incarceration for noncriminal, “technical” offenses of parole, resulting in hundreds of people becoming eligible for release, and thousands more no longer living with arrest warrants for these technical offenses. Louisiana restored parole eligibility to certain people and reduced the number of years some people must wait to be eligible for consideration.