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The Gun of Incarceration

by Cristian Farias

New Jersey has been hailed for its approach to decarceration, including a bail reform law that some advocates see as a national model. And yet the state still supervises more than 120,000 of its residents under some form of probation or parole. According to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the state ranks tenth in the nation for the number of people who are subject to some form of supervision. These are people whom prosecutors, judges, and the state’s parole authority have determined may serve their sentences, or what’s left of them, under some form of state control and coercion, but out in the community. Hence the misnomer community supervision—a gentle shorthand for the idea that people serving these sentences are free to be in their own neighborhoods and environments, guided by the steady presence of a probation or parole officer.

Many years ago, in a prior life, I was part of this state apparatus, supervising a caseload of more than a hundred people who reported to me for regular check-ins. In a windowless office in a small city in New Jersey, I’d inquire about my clients’ lives, livelihoods, and living conditions. I’d walk into a bathroom stall with them for drug testing, even if their conviction hadn’t been drug related. I’d check the status of their court-ordered fines and fees, each with its own acronym to signify the nature of the state’s interest in them. And I’d inform them that I’d be visiting them in their home, which I was empowered to inspect without a warrant, pursuant to their conditions of probation. As I wrote for Inquest last year, there were many rules about these casual indignities that I didn’t understand—Did I really have to let ICE know when a client showed up to see me?—that I just had to accept, aware that my job depended on following them.

All of these memories came flooding back as I read Vincent Schiraldi’s sweeping Mass Supervision, a necessary corrective that lays bare the harms and failures of this system, and—in his view—the need to end probation and parole as we know them.

What is striking about the book is not only what is being said but who is saying it: Schiraldi at one time served as probation commissioner of New York City. Indeed, he opens Mass Supervision by recounting the meeting in which Mayor Michael Bloomberg more or less offered him the job. But Schiraldi is also a longtime advocate and reformer, and knows better than most the literature, the bureaucracies, the previous attempts at reform, and the political realities attendant to dramatically shrinking—and, in time, abolishing entirely—our dependence on the largest form of criminal punishment in the United States.

While Schiraldi was in charge of New York City’s probation system, he built on many years of reform work by a robust network of advocacy and community organizations, many of them funded by the city itself, that had been pushing hard to divert people from the criminal system. Probation was to no longer be the “catchall” solution, as he puts it, and an ecosystem of programming, specialty courts, and community resources took its place. This is how the city became a case study in the near abolition of probation. His experiences and knowledge of how these stars aligned, so to speak, inform Mass Supervision. “Because of the harm that comes from community supervision and its absence of quantifiable benefits despite decades of reform attempts,” Schiraldi writes, “I believe it’s time to gradually and carefully end it and study the outcomes.”

Schiraldi’s aspiration, which he terms “incremental abolition,” is a tall order. Probation and parole are an entrenched set of policies and practices in all fifty states, subjecting some 3.7 million people to state supervision, surveillance, and elaborate requirements that vary dramatically by jurisdiction. Moreover, like policing and prisons, probation and parole have a way of seeming as though they simply are—an impression fueled in large part by a belief that these are age-old fixtures in our criminal punishment apparatus. And that doing anything to disturb them—let alone defund them out of existence—would make communities unsafe.

Yet as Schiraldi goes to great lengths to show, probation and parole simply aren’t working. The question then becomes: What do you replace them with?

Even I struggle to imagine what it would look like in New Jersey to dismantle probation along the lines Schiraldi prescribes.

In the Garden State, probation is run by the court system; employs more than 1,800 officers with civil-service and labor protections, plus several hundred supervisors and support staff; and is enshrined in law in various ways. Yet the state—next to, and nearly as populous as, New York City—has a probation population nearly ten times the size of that which Schiraldi once oversaw as the city’s probation chief. Could his experiment work here?

Building off a study Schiraldi and his colleagues at the Columbia Justice Lab published last year, Mass Supervision makes a potent case that both probation and parole—which are meted out in quantities that dwarf, by many millions, the number of people in jail and prison—are far from alternatives to incarceration. Instead, Schiraldi writes, they’re “net wideners,” expanding the number of people who are subject to surveillance and carceral control on top of those already caught in our system of mass incarceration. At worst, probation and parole are also “trip wires” into incarceration, merely delaying, not preventing, a person’s entrance to prison.

People closest to the communities harmed by mass supervision know the realities—the extent of both its supervision and its failures—but the broader public, and even the advocacy world, largely do not. Armed with historical insights, research, and his own experience in the field, Schiraldi’s biggest contribution is unmasking the reality that neither probation nor parole have made us any safer. Instead, the chief role of probation and parole has been to police and punish non-criminal rule-breaking—the myriad so-called “technical” violations that the system imposes. Depending on the jurisdiction or how punitive a person’s assigned officer is, or both, nearly anything can be used to justify revoking a person’s supervision: missing a check-in, failing to make a payment, being unable to find adequate employment, testing positive for marijuana, and on and on. And the result of such an infraction is, more often than not, imprisonment.

Schiraldi makes a forceful case that the tyranny of these technicalities is a key component of why probation and parole have lost their way. Set aside, for a moment, that they are arbitrarily enforced. Why even theoretically impose so many conditions that worsen rather than improve people’s lives and material conditions, making compliance and a productive life nearly impossible? Is this really what public safety looks like? Layer on top of that the racial disparities that define the criminal legal system, the predatory nature of supervision’s court-imposed financial obligations, and the absence of supportive infrastructure to help people succeed while under supervision, and there’s little wonder someone like Schiraldi, who now runs Maryland’s juvenile justice agency, is throwing up his hands.

This is all a far cry from probation’s radical, rehabilitative origins in the 1800s. Probation grew out of a sincere, if at times paternalistic, desire to keep people facing substance abuse problems from the jaws of jail and prison. John Augustus, the religious shoemaker in Massachusetts who is widely thought of as the father of probation, invited those under his supervision to stay in his own home to keep them out of trouble. Augustus was certainly not arming himself against his charges, as many probation and parole officers now do.

Yet the “gun of incarceration,” as Schiraldi puts it, is precisely what many people get when they sign the dotted line agreeing to the conditions of their supervision. Coercion, not compassion, is the norm. This hardened, warlike vision of community supervision, coupled with its bureaucratization and professionalization over the past hundred-plus years, has made it inefficient, sclerotic, and far more punitive than our forebears ever imagined. If, in this reality, prison is an inevitability and freedom is elusive, maybe this alternative to incarceration is no alternative at all.

In Mass Supervision, Schiraldi lets it be known that “a major foundation” has approached him with funding to find a willing jurisdiction to explore what he calls “a thoughtful experiment” in abolishing probation and parole. He doesn’t name names, and there’s no mention of any takers. The section takes the form of an imaginary pitch to the interested governor of a midsize state. And it is here that Schiraldi offers the clearest description of his incremental approach to supervision abolition.

Schiraldi’s sketch of the pilot is sparse when it comes to the larger criminal system, but the broad strokes are what one might expect from a reformer who wishes, simultaneously, to recruit massive numbers to his cause while also centering the needs of people directly impacted by the system. It consists of getting buy-in from elected officials, nonprofit organizations, and the advocacy community, which was the “backbone” of the experiment that made New York City a model. The plan also proposes spending at least some of the savings on impacted communities—like a citywide program that now exists in New York to connect probation clients with programming and services. The plan calls for analyzing and following the data from this new approach and sharing it widely with the community, so as to lend this replacement legitimacy, follow best practices, and learn from false starts and mistakes.

More fundamentally, Schiraldi calls for thinking of this new system less as people- and offense-management and more as a way to treat people as human beings with agency. To help them set the course of their own lives. “Of course,” he writes, “all of this would need to phase in gradually—but with due dispatch—and the state and intermediaries would need to develop oversight, organizational capacity, data collection, and reporting mechanisms.”

In this vision, incremental abolition sounds a lot like growing the state in other ways, with think tanks and nonprofits and officers with lower caseloads (stakeholders, in reform-speak) helping to build capacity in the community. This is not unlike what is happening with some community-based approaches to gun violence in recent years, where states and localities have looked to existing community programs and infrastructure, rather than to policing and prisons.

Yet Schiraldi’s vision lacks clarity about what prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, sheriffs, prison officials, and others with power outside the supervision bureaucracy will do to get on board with this overhaul of probation and parole. These actors in the system, not probation and parole officers, are routinely the real engines of so much criminalization and other hardships—and have more power to keep people out of harm’s way than most. Could an ambitious, politically savvy governor bring everyone on board? Hard to say, especially in places where prosecutors are themselves elected. And as the backlash to calls for even modest reforms to policing and the carceral state have shown, phasing out probation and parole could come with its own political risks. The parole backlash of the 1980s, the effects of which are with us to this day, shows how carceral politics can easily derail efforts at reform. To date, advocates in many states, including New York, are hard at work trying to undo the damage from these early days of our era of mass incarceration.

Zeroing in on parole, Schiraldi gives credit to Martin Horn, another former-commissioner-turned-reformer, and his idea of replacing parole supervision with a voucher system where people could decide for themselves where to live, what services to seek out, and how to find their footing after prison. But we could well wonder what might happen instead if all the resources not being spent on people’s supervision, prosecution, and reincarceration went directly to the people trying to start life anew? Not to middlemen and think tanks and more research studies, but to those who need it most. It’s a compelling option that has taken root in some localities, with encouraging results: In Oakland, for example, one organization offers people leaving prison room, board, a stipend, and a transportation card to get around, without the curfews and restrictions that come with parole supervision.

I don’t keep up with the clients I once supervised on probation, in part because we were trained to draw clear boundaries. But when I wrote last year about a study Schiraldi coauthored that previewed many of the arguments in Mass Supervision, I texted a former client to get his reactions. After finishing his probation term many years ago, he’d moved on with his life: He went to law school, clerked for a judge, and then went on to work in legal services. He told me that the idea of abolishing probation was new to him, “but I’m all for it.”

If someone who’s now free from a form of control that once held him down feels that way, I can’t imagine how people who are still under the yoke of supervision feel about the prospect. If nothing else, Mass Supervision should be an eye-opener for anyone who’s never stopped to consider what probation and parole do to so many people in the United States—and to get mad about it. As for those with the power to change things, Schiraldi urges them to be courageous, hear from those supervision harms most, and begin experimenting with how to bring this alternative form of punishment to an end.  

Cristian Farias is a legal journalist and Senior Editor of Inquest.

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