'Wake-Up Call' About A Broken System: New Study Shows Failings Of Probation, Parole

Jun 18, 2019
Originally published on June 18, 2019 7:08 pm

Nearly half the people admitted to state prisons in the U.S. are there because of violations of probation or parole, according to a new nationwide study that highlights the personal and economic costs of the practice.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center said the majority of these violations are for "minor infractions," such as failing a drug test or missing a curfew. Those so-called technical violations cost states $2.8 billion every year, the report says.

Criminal justice advocates say the analysis amounts to a call to action.

"This should serve as a wake-up call that our probation and parole systems are not healthy, not functioning as intended and need to be reformed," said Juliene James, director of criminal justice for Arnold Ventures, a philanthropic foundation that funded the study.

Many states are trying to reduce the number of people who return to a life of crime, but the Council of State Governments said the new report demonstrates that "the harsh reality is that supervision fails nearly as often as it succeeds."

"Probation and parole are meant to help people avoid both crime and incarceration and live successful lives in their communities," said Megan Quattlebaum, who directs the CSG Justice Center.

About 95,000 people are locked up because of technical violations on any given day, the report says. In 20 states, those minor infractions account for more than half of prison admissions.

Some states, including Missouri and Pennsylvania, are attempting to respond to the problem by providing more treatment for people with mental illness or addictions.

The issue attracted national attention this year after musicians Meek Mill and Jay-Z joined with leaders in sports and entertainment to launch a new organization focused on overhauling probation and parole.

The issue is personal for Meek Mill, who was born Robert Rihmeek Williams. He has been on probation for 11 years, starting with a conviction on gun and drug charges that sent him cycling back into the justice system after repeated technical violations.

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A report out today has some disturbing data about who is filling state prisons. It points to problems in how states handle probation and parole. Here's Megan Quattlebaum of the Council of State Governments.


MEGAN QUATTLEBAUM: Forty-five percent - nearly half of state prison admissions nationwide - are the result of these violations of probation and parole supervision. And that means we have to, on a state-by-state level, take a deep dive look to understand what's going on.

SHAPIRO: For more on what the researchers found and what it says about the criminal justice system, NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is here in the studio.

Hi, Carrie.


SHAPIRO: Probation and parole are supposed to be alternatives to incarceration, ways to avoid locking someone up. I gather this report pokes holes in that idea.

JOHNSON: It really does. Now, sometimes, people violate probation or parole by committing new crimes, and that's not good. Authorities agree many of those people deserve to be sent back to jail or prison. But this study says, for the first time, that something like 95,000 people on any given day are locked up because of what it calls technical violations. Those are minor infractions - missing curfew, failing a drug test. These violations cost taxpayers a lot of money.

The Council of State Governments estimates the price tag for locking those people back up is $2.8 billion a year. And the study also says in 20 states, more than half of new prison admissions are because of these probation or parole violations. It's clear that in the conversation we've been having for years now about mass incarceration, probation and parole are not getting enough attention.

SHAPIRO: What do these researchers suggest should be done about it?

JOHNSON: You know, the vast majority of crime and punishment happens at the state level, so any changes to the system will have to happen at the state level too. John Wetzel runs the Corrections Department in Pennsylvania. He says Pennsylvania is spending about $100 million a year to lock up people for those technical violations, those relatively minor infractions. Wetzel says states should think about whether they're setting people up to fail. Here's just one example, he says.

JOHN WETZEL: You can't be around any other felons or any other people with a criminal record or any other people on supervision. In many of the communities that our individuals are going back to, that is not realistic. That's not setting someone up for success.

JOHNSON: In fact, Wetzel says quite the opposite. In some cases, just because someone made a mistake and committed a crime in the past doesn't - that doesn't make them a risk to be around. In fact, in some cases, they could be a good influence on people just getting out of prison. Now, other states have other ideas about what to do about this. Some are offering more treatment - drug treatment to people behind bars. The idea there is you help keep - people get clean before they get out of prison that - so they don't test positive for drugs when they're released and get sent back in for violating probation or parole.

SHAPIRO: What about bigger changes, like shortening sentences, for example?

JOHNSON: You know, we do have some precedent for cutting back on sentences - drug sentences, in particular. That was done at the federal level with respect to crack cocaine not very long ago. Now, experts also say states should start thinking about shortening the length of probation and parole too. They point out the rapper Meek Mill from Philadelphia was on probation for something like 11 years - a time when he cycled in and out of the system for minor violations. Now, another idea on the table is barring people from being sent back to prison for some of those kinds of minor infractions. Meek Mill himself, now out of prison, and some sports figures have launched an effort to try to advocate for some of those bigger reforms in the future.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Thank you, Carrie.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.