Do We Really Need Probation and Parole?

As initiatives like the REFORM Alliance surge forward, it is important that they take an elemental, rather than incremental, approach to reforming probation and parole.  Activists should ask how much, if at all, we need to employ government workers to watch those who have broken the law, writes a former  New York probation commissioner.

A man nine years out of a New York prison proposes marriage to his girlfriend who also has a criminal record.  Because it is against the rules to associate with someone with a prior record, his parole is revoked and he is returned to prison for a year─after which he marries the same person, this time with his parole officer’s permission.

A Texas woman is sentenced to five years in prison for attempting to vote while on felony probation.  She cast a provisional ballot that was not counted and claims that she did not know she was prohibited from voting while under supervision.

More than 10 years after he had been sentenced to probation as a teenager, an award-winning Philadelphia hip-hop artist is imprisoned for two to four years for a technical violation for a traffic infraction and breaking up an altercation in an airport.  Both charges against him were ultimately dismissed.

The above three cases represent the broad range of behavior─some of it barely illegal, some illegal only for those under supervision, some not illegal at all─for which a person under probation or parole can be deprived of their liberty.

Although “mass supervision” on probation or parole has not yet garnered the attention of “mass incarceration,” its impact is no small matter.

There are 4.5 million people under community supervision in America, twice as many as are incarcerated, a figure that amounts to more than the population in half of all U.S. states.  About four in ten people entering America’s prisons and jails each year are under supervision.  Many of those are incarcerated, not for committing new crimes, but for breaking a wide array of supervision rules.

Community corrections has been slowly gaining attention commensurate with its size and contribution to prison growth.

  • From 2013 to 2016, the Harvard Kennedy School convened 28 community corrections officials, researchers, prosecutors, advocates and formerly incarcerated people into an Executive Session on Community Corrections. The executive session published papers and convened public forums arguing for sweeping reforms, including shrinking the number of people under supervision and reducing revocations to prison.
  • In August 2017, every major association representing community corrections endorsed a Statement on the Future of Community Corrections, along with 35 prominent probation and parole administrators and 45 leading prosecutors. The statement asserted that, “community corrections has become a significant contributor to mass incarceration,” recommending that “that the number of people on probation and parole supervision in America be significantly reduced.”
  • A few months later, Meek Mill, the Philadelphia hip-hop artist profiled above, was returned to prison for a technical probation violation, spurring a national outcry and bringing the issue of community corrections to the attention of a broader audience. A nationwide effort to #FreeMeek sprung up and #Cut50, a bipartisan effort co-founded by Van Jones to reduce mass incarceration, launched a #StillNotFree Campaign to extend the conversation beyond Mill’s case.
  • The Columbia Justice Lab began publishing a series of papers on the impact of probation and parole nationally and in selected states coinciding with this explosion of interest in probation and parole reform. Too Big to Succeed – a national look at probation and parole authored by 20 leading community corrections administrators was followed by reports focusing on New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the latter of which we release collaboratively with JustLeadershipUSA.
  • Columbia’s New York report inspired the Less is More Act filed in January 2019 by Assemblymember Walter Mosley and Senator Brian Benjamin aimed at reducing the number of people violated on parole in New York State. New York returns the second highest number of people to prison for non-criminal, technical violations and people incarcerated for state parole violations are the only population that is increasing on Rikers Island.

This brings us to Wednesday’s launch of the REFORM Alliance, an organization inspired by Mill’s case, committed to advancing criminal justice reform.

Van Jones of #Cut50 (and a CNN host) has been tapped to lead the initiative, whose board is co-chaired by Mill and Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin, and includes musician-entrepreneur Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and other titans of business, entertainment and sports.

As these various initiatives surge forward, it is important that they take an elemental, rather than incremental, approach to reforming probation and parole.

Probation and parole were established in the 1800s in America with the ambitious goal of helping people who had run afoul of the law turn their lives around.  As mass incarceration exploded over the last four decades, community supervision mimicked it, even rebranding itself as “community corrections” in an attempt to stay apace with its big brother, the prison.

It partially succeeded, growing almost four-fold since 1980, but receiving only one out of ten corrections dollars.

To be sure, efforts to shrink supervision and make it less punitive are worthwhile.  However, if the goal is to support people so they can flourish in their home communities, there needs to be a deeper examination of the best approaches to doing so.

New York City offers one example of how much probation can shrink substantially without producing undesirable consequences.  From 1996 to 2017, the number of people on probation in New York City declined by three-quarters and technical violations plummeted to three percent.  In 2014, 26 percent of people arrested for felonies in New York received unsupervised conditional or unconditional discharges while only four percent were sentenced to probation.

Did crime rise because of this massive reduction in community supervision in New York City?  Did the jail population explode as probation, sometimes viewed as an alternative to incarceration, receded?

Quite the opposite, there was a 57 percent decrease in violent crime and a 55 percent decline in jail usage in New York City during that time.

And although the probation department’s budget rightly dropped, its per person expenditures doubled because of the sharp decline in its population, allowing me, as department head, to increase our contracts for community programs from two to 54 during my tenure there.

Former New York State Parole Director and New York City Probation Commissioner Martin Horn has proposed abolishing parole supervision and channeling the savings from reduced revocations to provide vouchers for persons on parole to buy their own services and supports.

Horn believes that parole is not particularly good at rehabilitating people on its caseload because parole is about taking risks and government is risk-averse.  He reasons that individuals convicted of a new crime during the time they would have been on parole should be given moderate additional punishment, but should not be violated for non-criminal acts.

Give Returning Citizens More Responsibility

By putting programmatic decision-making into the hands of returning citizens, Horn also believes services will flow into the neighborhoods they live in.

Horn’s watershed proposal, and the experience of New York City, force us to ask basic questions about the proper role of government in helping people reacclimate to their communities.

High caseloads, scarce resources and a “trail ‘em, nail ‘em, and jail ‘em” attitude that replaced the Progressive-era’s rehabilitative ethic has rendered community supervision too big, overwhelmed and punitive to succeed.

There is not much evidence that revoking and imprisoning people contributes to public safety or rehabilitation, but we know it has a devastating and disproportionate toll on poor, young men of color.  In contrast, recent research by Patrick Sharkey has found that increasing community programs helps improve community safety.

Vincent Schiraldi

Vincent Schiraldi

Instead of marginal fixes to the largest part of America’s system of punishment and control, this new wave of activism should ask how much, if at all, we need to employ government workers to watch those who have broken the law, versus how much we should be bolstering communities to help their neighbors turn their lives around.

Vincent Schiraldi is co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab and Senior Research Scientist at the Columbia School of Social Work.  He was formerly Commissioner of New York City Probation.


Meek Mill Launches $50 Million Crusade for Justice

The hip-hop superstar may be the most famous American caught in a byzantine system of probation and parole that can send former incarcerees back to prison for “technical offenses.” With support from wealthy friends in the sports, finance and entertainment worlds, he’s now spearheading a movement to develop alternatives.

Meek Mill, hip hop artist-turned-justice crusader, is using his star power to fuel an ambitious $50 million campaign to shrink the number of individuals caught inside the U.S. probation and parole systems—a 4.7-million-strong group of which he may be the most famous member.

The campaign, called the REFORM Alliance, was launched Wednesday at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York with an event that brought together VIPs from the worlds of music, sport, media, politics and finance, all pledging their support for justice reform.

meek mill

Meek Mill, Jay Z and Van Jones (L-R) arrive for the launch Wednesday of the REFORM Alliance. Photos by Vincent Papandrea

“I didn’t ask to be the face of reform,” Mill told the packed forum, in a reference to his year-long battle with Pennsylvania courts over a decision to revoke his parole and send him back to prison for a “technical” violation—which in turn provoked a nationwide protest that resulted in his release last April.

“I don’t want to be the face of anything. I just want to bridge gaps and try to bring people together and make the world a better place, especially for my culture and the environment where I grew up, where the system is targeted against people who look like me.”

Mill said he decided to channel the anger and frustration he felt into a movement that could help the millions of others who didn’t have the kind of celebrity profile that finally persuaded authorities to spring him from prison. (Officially he is still subject to the community supervision system until 2023. Released on bail, he had to receive permission from his probation officer to attend the launch.)

“I’m one of the lucky ones,” he said. “But there are people who don’t have a voice, and I’m here to speak for [them].”

Joining Mill on stage were some of the influential figures who had lobbied for his release and were now founding partners and board members of the REFORM Alliance: music mogul Jay-Z; Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin; New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft; Third Point LLC CEO and founder Daniel Loeb; Galaxy Digital CEO and founder Michael E. Novogratz; and Brooklyn Nets co-owner Clara Wu Tsai.

The eighth board member, Robert F. Smith, CEO & Founder of Vista Equity Partners, was unable to attend.

The new alliance did not offer any detailed plan for how it would use the $50 million in private capital supporting the initiative, but the newly appointed CEO of the group, CNN’s Van Jones, said it was intended to promote activities already underway by “grassroots” groups to develop alternatives to the community supervision system—with an early focus on New York and Pennsylvania.

“We are here to add capacity, to amplify the voices, to lift up the people who have been screaming for so long, with so little attention,” said Jones, who has co-founded numerous advocacy organizations dedicated to justice reform, including #Cut50, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights,, and the Dream Corps.

Editor’s Note: Jones was named the 2017 “Justice Media Trailblazer”  by The Crime Report.

‘Fight Different’

Unveiling the group’s catchphrase, “Fight Different,” Jones said the new organization should be seen as part of the continuing efforts across the country to develop bipartisan support for fixing the justice system.

“We are not here to reinvent the wheel,” added Jones, whose lobbying for successful passage of the watershed federal criminal justice reform bill, the First Step Act, earned him a spot last month behind President Donald Trump at the White House signing ceremony.

“We are here to accelerate the wheel that has already been built by grassroots organizations.”

The well-funded REFORM Alliance adds more heft to the increasing trend towards private investment of justice reform initiatives in a climate of reduced federal funding, and the participation of Mill and Jay Z also accelerates the involvement of entertainment and sports celebrities, ranging from John Legend to football star Colin Kaepernick, in controversial social justice issues such as police bias.

“I think attention is being brought to this [probation] issue because of his celebrity,” said Jay Z in a reference to Mill, adding that he and others hoped they could now use the celebrity attention to make a difference.

They already proved they could get the attention of politicians.

Sitting in the front rows of the audience was a gallery of political heavyweights, including Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf; Cook County (Ill.) State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx; Brooklyn (N.Y.) District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

Topeka Sam

Topeka K. Sam. Photo courtesy New York Foundation

But arguably, given REFORM’s mission to serve those most adversely affected by the criminal justice system, the event’s most important attendees were not part of any blue-ribbon guest list.

They were a group of young people and grassroots activists who joined Topeka Sam, founder and Executive Director of the Ladies of Hope Ministries in Brooklyn, N.Y., on stage as she delivered her own take on the need for reform.

“So often we only speak about the 2.2 million people who are currently incarcerated in our prisons and jails in our nation,” she said. “We don’t speak about the 4.7 million people who are incarcerated in our communities through probation and parole.”

She continued: “Why is this number so high? Because people are being sentenced to lengthy terms of post-incarceration and probation, and are then being subjected to arbitrary harassment, which leads to violations, then prison, then parole, then probation, then prison again.

“(It’s) an ongoing cycle that [never] ends. And it ends today.”

The Justice System’s “Revolving Door”

Meek Mill’s case is an example of what Jones called the “revolving door” of the justice system that spins millions of Americans in and out of prison and the courts, as a result of a system of byzantine rules that govern their lives for years after their release from incarceration.

Jay Z

Jay Z. Photo by Vincent Papandrea

Mill was arrested for violating the terms of parole granted a decade earlier after serving eight months on gun and drug charges. His offenses: “popping a wheelie” on a dirt bike (a traffic offense), and his alleged involvement in an airport fight. On November 2017, a Pennsylvania judge sentenced him to two-four years in state prison despite recommendations from his probation officer and the District Attorney’s office that he face no sentence.

Reform advocates say such “technical violations”—like arriving late to a meeting with a parole officer or failing to inform him in advance of travel—regularly send more than two-thirds of those under community supervision back to prison in a system that they charge is especially weighted against people of color.

“We are going to dismantle this revolving door,” pledged Jones. “We are going to put our love against the hate that built this system.”

Roman Gressier is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Meek Mill’s Release Called Spur to Reform ‘Punitive’ Community Corrections

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision Tuesday to release rapper Meek Mill from prison, where he had been held for the past five months for violating his terms of probation, underlines the need for reforms in the state’s community supervision system, says former NYC probation chief Vincent Schiraldi.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision Tuesday to release rapper Meek Mill from prison, where he had been held for the past five months for violating his terms of probation, underlines the need to end the “punitiveness” of the state’s mass supervision system, says reform advocate Vincent Schiraldi.

“Although the High Court’s action should be applauded, 296,000 people are still on probation and parole in Pennsylvania—almost the population of Pittsburgh,” Schiraldi, a former probation commissioner in New York City who now co-directs the Columbia University Justice Lab.

“They were filling Pennsylvania’s jails and prisons yesterday, and will continue to do so tomorrow and the day after that, until policymakers reduce the size and punitiveness of mass supervision in Pennsylvania.”

The jailing of Mill, 30, spurred a massive protest after a judge revoked his probation last November for “technical violations” that included testing positive for drug use, new arrests for low-level crimes (one for popping a “wheelie” on a dirtbike and one for a fight), and failure to abide by travel restrictions. He had no new criminal conviction.

His release coincides with a new Justice Lab report which found that Pennsylvania has the nation’s third-highest combined rate of community supervision (probation and parole). The parole supervision rate alone is three times the national average: 1,109 per 100,000 vs. 350 per 100,000.

One out of every 22 adults in Philadelphia are under probation or parole supervision, more than double the national average, the report said.

“This extraordinarily high rate of mass supervision is fueling an inflated rate of jail and prison incarceration,” wrote Schiraldi, the author of the report.

“Probation and parole were designed to give people second chances and a hand up to lead productive lives in the community, not to serve as trip wires to reincarceration for violations as minor as missing an appointment with a parole officer.”

The report recommended that Pennsylvania policymakers shorten probation and parole terms, and focus community resources on the first few years of supervision—when they have the greatest impact.

Schiraldi added that Pennsylvania’s high rate is only the most egregious example of a nationwide misuse of community supervision.

In August, 2017, the nation’s leading probation and parole supervision administrators signed a “Statement on the Future of Community Corrections” which called the system a significant driver of mass incarceration.

Brent Cohen, interim CEO of JustLeadership USA, said the report illustrates the “failed model of mass supervision” in the U.S.

In another comment on the report, Keir Bradford-Grey, chief defender of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, called probation an “invisible net that ensares a large population of our city, mostly people of color.”

She added, “For far too long, we have turned a blind eye to this stark reality, and now we are all paying the social and economic price.”

On the eve of his release, Mill, winner of the 2016 Billboard Music Award for Top Rap Album, tweeted that the past five months in jail “have been a nightmare.”


The Lesson of Meek Mill: A Probation System ‘Set Up to Fail’

The Philadelphia rapper sent back to prison over a technical violation of his probation terms is just another example of how the resource- strained community supervision system sets former inmates- the majority of them young men of color- up for failure, writes a University of Minnesota professor.

Meek Mill, winner of the 2016 Billboard Music Award for Top Rap Album, made news in November when he was sentenced to two to four years in prison for violating probation. The judge cited a series of supervision violations as reasons for the revocation. They included testing positive for drug use, new arrests for low-level crimes (one for popping a “wheelie” on a dirtbike and one for a fight), and failure to abide by travel restrictions.He had no new criminal conviction.

Mill’s probation originally stemmed from a 2007 arrest, which came with a short stint in jail and a seven year probation term. His sentence sparked a wave of protest in Philadelphia and beyond, as his supporters push for the judge’s recusal and broader criminal justice reforms. This activism is joining an increasingly loud criminal justice chorus calling for reform. On Monday, a group of leading correctional administrators and advocates, including Van Jones and #Cut50, declared that the U.S. should cut probation and parole populations in half.

See Also: Why Meek Mill Is Not Alone

As Jay-Z wrote in the New York Times, Mill’s imprisonment sends the message that the criminal justice system “stalks black people.” What happened to Mill is not an exception. In fact, it’s just one example of a bloated criminal justice system which not only sends too many to prison, but also entraps more than 4.6 million adults in community supervision—with most serving their time on probation.

Probation is a court-ordered form of criminal justice supervision meted out for both felony and misdemeanor offenses. Unlike parole (which is typically supervision following release from prison), individuals can be sentenced directly to probation, for terms lasting up to more than 10 years in a handful of states.

Meek Mill’s story is typical in at least three respects:

  • Young black men without a high school diploma face exceptionally high rates of probation supervision;
  • The terms of supervision are frequently very difficult to meet for years on end, and probationers are frequently imprisoned for violating the terms of supervision;
  • Revocation rates are especially high for young African-American men.

In recently published research, I use a household survey that collected data in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2014 to show who is on probation. As compared to other Americans, those on probation are more likely to be young African-American and Hispanic men with low levels of formal education. During this period, one in six black men aged 20-34 years without a high school diploma reported being on probation at some point during the year. For young white men who never graduated from high school, one in eight reported probation supervision.

Education (or the economic stability needed to enter college) protects men from probation; among young men with some college experience, an estimated four percent of white men and five percent of black men reported being on probation in the previous year.

These racial disparities grow starker when we look at who is incarcerated for probation violations in jail and prison. While 57 percent of probationers in the community identify as non-Hispanic whites, only 40 percent of former probationers in jail and prison do so. In addition, these former probationers make up a substantial share of the incarcerated population.

See Table

Nationwide in the early 2000s, an estimated 33 percent of jail inmates and 23 percent of prison inmates were on probation at the time of their arrest.

Lastly, like Meek Mill, many of these adults in jail and prison are incarcerated for nothing more serious than a violation of the terms of their supervision. Nearly one in three jail inmates and one in five prison inmates who were on probation at the time of arrest are incarcerated because of such “technical” violations, excluding new arrests.

As in Mill’s case, these supervision violations include failure to report and abide by travel restrictions, testing positive for drugs, and other comparatively low-level administrative infractions. An additional 32 percent of failed probationers in jail and six percent of those in prison are incarcerated for revocations related to new arrest charges, but have not been convicted of a new crime. Only 25 percent of failed probationers in jail (but 70 percent of failed probationers in prison) were there for a new criminal conviction.

This evidence suggests that the criminal justice system pushes an extraordinary number young men of color into community supervision—and then sets them up to fail by requiring an exacting performance that is nearly impossible for young men in high-crime and heavily-policed neighborhoods with few resources to meet. At the same time, probation provides few supportive services to help young adults succeed and exit supervision successfully.

As Columbia University’s Justice Lab recently declared, community corrections is “too big to succeed.” Signed by leading practitioners and policy reformers in the field, the report calls for a series of community supervision reforms that can be embraced by states and local jurisdictions, including:

  • Cutting the overall supervision population in half, reserving supervision for only serious cases;
  • Reducing the length of supervision;
  • Limiting the number of conditions imposed on probationers (e.g. drug testing and travel restrictions);
  • Incentivizing positive progress on probation by allowing early discharge;
  • Eliminating probation supervision fees;
  • Improving services and support for probationers.
Michelle Phelps

Michelle S. Phelps

If such principles had guided Philadelphia and Pennsylvania when Meek Mill was sentenced and supervised, he would likely not be behind bars today. By shrinking probation and parole, limiting supervision to only more serious cases, and providing more meaningful support and fewer barriers to success, jurisdictions can scale back the fiscal and social costs of mass punishment and improve the lives of millions of Americans.

Michelle S. Phelps is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her research is on policing, prisons, and probation. She welcomes comments from readers.


Why Meek Mill is Not Alone

The recent sentencing of the Philadelphia rap artist over a probation violation underlines why America’s system of community supervision needs to change, argue two prominent justice reformers.

 The recent sentencing of Philadelphia rap artist Meek Mill to two-to-four years in a Pennsylvania prison for a probation violation that occurred 11 years after his original offense should cause policymakers and advocates alike to reexamine what “mass supervision” tools such as probation and parole do to exacerbate the problem of mass incarceration in America.

The answer is: plenty.

That’s why we signed a statement in August calling for the end of mass probation and parole supervision in America.

Glen Martin

Glenn E. Martin

The truth is that Meek Mill’s story is the rule, not the exception.

He will be locked up and become another statistic in America’s massive prison and jail system —but not because he was tried, convicted and sentenced for a crime. He will be put in a cage because he violated a condition of probation, a sentencing measure that’s often seen as a gift of compassion and the opportunity for a second chance.

That misguided view helps explain why almost five million people are on probation and parole in America today, up more than three-fold since 1980. There are more than twice as many people under community corrections supervision in America as are incarcerated.

An appalling one out of every 53 adults in America is under parole or probation supervision. As with every other area of our criminal justice system, the racial disparities are alarming. One in four young black males is under correctional control in the U.S. Most of them are on probation and parole.

These individuals suffer a partial loss of liberty due to being under government supervision. They are at risk of greater loss of liberty due to potential violations, many of which are innocuous and could be cured with measures that fall far short of incarceration.

The average person carries 15 conditions as part of their probation. A violation of any of them, like missing an appointment, failing a drug test, associating with another person with a felony conviction, or failing to pay a fine, can and often does result in incarceration. Because of this, probation and parole—founded as alternatives to incarceration—have become punitive systems that actually drive incarceration.

Vincent Schiraldi

Vincent Schiraldi

The result? Almost half of all the entrants into prison last year were incarcerated for a probation or parole violation.

It might come as a surprise to some, but our call for ending mass supervision is now mainstream thought among the very people who run America’s community corrections agencies.

The statement we signed in August calls community corrections “a significant contributor to mass incarceration.” Its signers believe that “it is possible to both significantly reduce the footprint of probation and parole and improve outcomes and public safety.”

This is not radical thinking, as demonstrated by the fact that every major probation and parole association in America also signed the statement, along with an additional 35 current and former probation and parole administrators.

Advocates and policy makers who care about reducing incarceration need to look in the mirror on this issue. Despite what are sometimes good intentions, Meek Mill’s case demonstrates that unnecessary supervision all too often leads to unnecessary incarceration.

Yet, in our efforts to eliminate mass incarceration, far too little attention is paid to mass supervision. Now is the time to change that.

Glenn E. Martin is the founder and president of JustLeadershipUSA, a national, member-driven advocacy organization that seeks to cut the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030 through empowering people who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system to drive criminal justice reform.

Vincent N. Schiraldi , is a senior research scientist and adjunct professor at the Columbia University Justice Lab, previously served as a Senior Adviser to the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, Commissioner of the NYC Department of Probation, and Director of the District of Columbia’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. They welcome readers’ comments.


After Standing for Peace With L.A.’s Mayor, The Game Vows Violence

The risk of appearing with a gangsta rapper in order to call for peace is that he could fall off the “Kumbaya” wagon and shatter the credibility of your message. In July, rapper The Game joined Mayor Eric Garcetti and Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck in a call for peace on the streets […]

The post After Standing for Peace With L.A.’s Mayor, The Game Vows Violence appeared first on True Crime Report.

rapper-the-game-lapd-protest-2Najee Ali/L.A. Weekly

The risk of appearing with a gangsta rapper in order to call for peace is that he could fall off the “Kumbaya” wagon and shatter the credibility of your message. In July, rapper The Game joined Mayor Eric Garcetti and Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck in a call for peace on the streets following fatal attacks on five Dallas police officers.

“I think that we need to take responsibility as a human race and accept the role as peace givers and people that distribute love and change throughout this city,” The Game told reporters that day.

Now, The Game has threatened East Coast rival Meek Mill in a beef over the details of a jewelry robbery.

The post After Standing for Peace With L.A.’s Mayor, The Game Vows Violence appeared first on True Crime Report.