From Supervision to Opportunity: Reimagining Probation and Parole

AuthorDavid J. Harding,Bruce Western,Jasmin A. Sandelson
Published date01 May 2022
Date01 May 2022
Subject MatterIntroduction
8 ANNALS, AAPSS, 701, May 2022
DOI: 10.1177/00027162221115486
Supervision to
Probation and
Across a variety of measures of safety and rehabilita-
tion, our current systems of parole and probation are
failing. Research shows that community supervision
fails to reduce crime; traps its subjects in cycles of
criminal justice involvement; is excessively punitive;
and creates widespread harm to individuals, families,
and communities—all while failing to significantly con-
tribute to the social and economic integration of those
under its control. We argue for a wholesale reform of
community supervision, including the abandonment of
current monitoring and control functions, and the
repurposing of resources into systems of support for
the hundreds of thousands of people leaving prison and
jail every year. We also provide an overview to the arti-
cles assembled for this volume, which chart the chal-
lenges facing those on community supervision and offer
a roadmap of potential policy solutions for improving
the life chances of formerly incarcerated and justice-
involved people.
Keywords: community supervision; probation; parole;
criminal justice; race; public policy; poverty
Every year, more than 500,000 people are
released from prison (Carson 2020), and more
than ten million people cycle through the
nation’s jails (Zeng and Minton 2021). For
many, the end of incarceration means the
beginning of community supervision, which
entails regular meetings with probation or
David J. Harding is a professor of sociology at the
University of California, Berkeley, and Director of UC
Berkeley’s Social Science D-Lab. He is the author of
On the Outside: Prisoner Reentry and Reintegration
(Chicago 2019) and After Prison: Navigating Adulthood
in the Shadow of the Justice System (Russell Sage 2020).
Bruce Western is the Bryce Professor of Sociology and
Social justice and directs the Justice Lab at Columbia
University. He is the author of Punishment and Inequality
in America (Russell Sage 2006) and Homeward: Life in
the Year after Prison (Russell Sage 2018).
parole officers and an elevated risk of reincarceration (Carson 2020; Oudekerk
and Kaeble 2021).1 Seventy percent of formerly imprisoned people enter parole
or some other form of community supervision (Carson 2020). Yet even these
numbers understate the scope of correctional oversight beyond incarceration. At
any point in time, one in forty-six Americans is on community supervision, and
there are now about 4.4 million people on probation or parole (Oudekerk and
Kaeble 2021). As the United States reckons with the harms of mass incarceration
and aggressive policing, comprehensive criminal justice reform must also address
the reach and impact of probation and parole.
What are we accomplishing with millions of people on community supervi-
sion? Originally, probation and parole were intended to help people reintegrate
after a criminal conviction by building pathways to economic and social opportu-
nity. Since criminal justice supervision is concentrated in communities that face
high levels of joblessness, discrimination, and poverty, the historic mission to
provide social support can help not only the people on probation and parole, but
their families and neighborhoods, too. Improving opportunities also makes com-
munities safer: education, stable jobs, housing security, and good health all
reduce crime (e.g., Sampson and Laub 2003; Bozick etal. 2018; Kirk etal. 2018;
Link etal. 2019).
Yet by these standards, community supervision is failing. Research documents
the low rates of employment, housing stability, health care access, and myriad
other indicators of social and economic reintegration among people on supervi-
sion (Visher and Travis 2003; Western et al. 2015; Harding etal. 2014). Table 1
shows that compared to the general population, people on probation or parole
are almost three times more likely to be unemployed, almost twice as likely to be
poor, and more than twice as likely to receive assistance from government pro-
grams. They are more likely to be out of the labor force due to disability, less
likely to have health insurance, and more likely to describe themselves as being
in poor or fair health; they have more limitations on daily activities and are twice
as likely to be in psychological distress. They are also twice as likely to have less
than a high school education and a third less likely to have ever attended college.
Finally, they experience much higher rates of residential instability.2
At the same time, people on community supervision are at high risk of arrest
and incarceration. Sixty-eight percent of people released from prison are arrested
within three years (Alper etal. 2018). Among people on probation, at least 12
percent become incarcerated; among those on parole, the figure is 27 percent
(Horowitz 2018). People on probation or parole who get arrested are often said
to have failed and, in some cases, that may be true; but an honest and dispassion-
ate look at the evidence shows how the system is failing them and that our system
of community supervision needs comprehensive reform.
Jasmin A. Sandelson is an associate research scholar at Columbia University’s Justice Lab and
an MFA student in New York University’s creative writing program. Her forthcoming book
explores the power of friendships between poor teenage girls to mitigate poverty’s harms.
NOTE: This research was supported by a grant from REFORM Alliance.

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