Our incarceration nation: After prison many still captive

Did you realize that there are more Americans on parole or probation than are held within the prison system? Yep, it’s hard to fathom but 1 in 58 American adults – about 4.4 million citizens – are currently under some sort of community supervision.

Do they all need to be? Doubtful. And the status quo is costing taxpayers billions every single year.

There have been a gazillion words written about prison reform, relaxation of stiff sentences and reduced incarceration rates but there has been much less said about a larger part of our corrections system that costs you, the taxpayer, some $9.3 billion each year. That’s the latest estimate of how much money is spent locking up people for violating their parole or probation.

The Pew Trust Organization has studied the system and concludes more could be done to safely reduce the number of those under supervision.

Pew’s research indicates those entering parole are most likely to reoffend in the first weeks on the outside. The chance that they will reoffend falls dramatically after the first year. Among those on probation, recidivism occurs most often within the first 10 to 18 months. So why is it routine to keep this portion of the corrections population under scrutiny for so long?

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports the average probation can last as long as nearly five years in Hawaii, more than 4 years in New Jersey, about 3½ years in Arizona, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama, Rhode Island and New York. Some critics believe the system is deliberately set up to self-perpetuate, to keep the offender under supervision as long as possible to justify the need for the system.

Adam Gelb, director of the Council on Criminal Justice says, “This has been the dirty little secret of the system for decades. Funneling parolees or probationers back into lockup, he says, is “a huge driver of prison populations and costs.”

And once under the system the complexity of the rules makes many offenders feel as if they are being set up for failure.

Look, sometimes a parolee or probationer commits another crime and for the public’s safety they need to be locked up again. But a nationwide study by the Council of State Governments shows a full 45% of the reincarcerated simply violated a rule. They may have botched some paperwork, forgot a curfew, or missed a drug test because the bus to the lab was late.

The CSG’s report estimates nearly $3 billion could be saved each year if the system was focused more on helping offenders ease back into lawful society rather than meting out punishments for breaking one of their rigid rules.

The supervised person must regularly report to an officer, submit to frequent blood/urine tests, get permission for where they can live, work and travel. They must have pre-approval of their friends and any major purchase. They must not be detained by law enforcement for any reason or be found to have anything that could be construed to be a weapon.

One recent report mentioned a parolee who was sanctioned after forgetting to return a steak knife to the kitchen after eating dinner at the living room TV. Outside the kitchen the knife is considered to be a weapon.

Break any of the rules and it could mean automatic reincarceration. As the CSG report stated, “Probation and parole are designed to lower prison populations and help people succeed in the community,” but their data shows the system is, “having the opposite effect.”

Imagine trying to establish a whole new life. It is a monumental task, especially for a convict who may have been incarcerated for decades. They have done their time and earned the right to freedom but freedom for them is not what the rest of us enjoy. Individuals on supervision will tell you they get up every morning feeling like the deck is stacked against them.

There has been a shift of attitude in several states lately. Some probation and parole officers are now adopting ways to reward ex-offenders for their positive behavior rather than officiously focusing only on that punitive list of strict conditions. In other words, they are offering a helping hand up – rather than a thumb pushing down.

Let’s hope that trend continues.

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