Those of us who work in criminal justice cannot go long without hearing questions such as "When are you folks going to reform your probationary strategy?" We are heartened somewhat by the meme shifting from "mass incarceration" to "probation reform", yet many of us pause and ask ourselves what is broken about probation? The answer, our reform minded friends are quick to point out, is the numbers they cite: 4.5 million people in this country are considered to be on some form of supervision from parole after prison to probation supervision in local communities. Critics of our common probation supervision programs tell us that there are more people on probation in this country than the population of Kentucky. They go on to point to a tripling of probationers in the last 30 years. These numbers are apparently so shocking to some that they demand change-often any program that will shrink the numbers. But why?
Recent census statistics show that America has a population of 328.2 million people. Yet in one year alone, 2017, Uniform Crime Report (UCR) data indicates that there were 1.2 million violent crimes and 7.7 million property crimes (including home burglaries). In just one year in the United States there were 8.9 million crimes reported. In years before 2017, there has been a steady rise in crimes along with the steady rise in population. Therefore, it seems quite plausible to find 4.5 million Americans not in prison but on community based supervision programs in order to protect society and hold offenders accountable.
Having a bit more than 1 percent of our national population on probation for millions of crimes committed annually does not necessarily shock the conscious or even give rise to a clarion call for change. However, there are in many legislatures around the country bills to limit the use of probation, time spent on it or in the words of Professor Phelps,
"[I]instead of diverting people from prison, probation often 'widens the net' by expanding formal supervision for low-level offenses that would otherwise garner little to no punishment. This matters because the very fact of being on probation puts individuals under heightened scrutiny, restricts their behavior, and eases the path to imprisonment." Notwithstanding Professor Phelps'suggestion that we perhaps forgo supervising criminal offenders in lieu of jail, public safety insists on at least some accountability for offenders so that they may reconsider reoffending again. Perhaps...