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Report: “Mass Supervision” Driving Mass Incarceration

A May 2023 report by Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) counts nearly 3.7 million Americans on probation or parole – nearly twice the nation’s total imprisoned population. This “mass supervision” brings the total number under control of the nation’s criminal justice system to about 5.5 million people – over 2,100 of every 100,000 citizens aged 18 and over.

While touted as alternatives to incarceration, probation and parole do not operate apart from it – in fact, they often end up driving it. Violations of probation and parole accounted for 42% of state prison admissions in 2020, according to the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center.

The number of people on probation – released before the end of a prison sentence – peaked in 2007 and has been trending downward since, driven largely by huge drops in two of the country’s largest states, California and Pennsylvania. By contrast, the number of people on parole, which involves supervision after release, has been growing and now accounts for almost 22% of all those under supervision.

Counting the population under mass supervision along with mass incarceration has an equalizing effect between states; the share under control of all parts of the criminal justice system in Rhode Island – 1,918 of every 100,000 citizens – is almost identical to Louisiana’s 1,953, even though the latter has an incarceration rate nearly five times higher.

If supervision represented only an alternative to incarceration, that would be a good thing. But the PPI report notes that probation and parole end up “widening the net,” putting a larger share of the population under control of the criminal justice system. See: Punishment Beyond Prisons 2023, PPI (May 2023).

The question, of course, is: Why? Florida, for example, already has one of the world’s highest incarceration rates, keeping over 720 of every 100,000 citizens in prison or jail; so why does it need probation and parole to keep nearly 800 more – 340,000 citizens in all – under its thumb, especially given the detrimental effect this has on their employability?

That question has bedeviled social scientists and philosophers since the onset of the industrial revolution. Marx acknowledged the existence of an underclass he called the lumpenproletariat, but he said its criminals, vagabonds and prostitutes were easily co-opted by reactionary demagogues to keep the working class in line, allowing their capitalist overlords to continue exploiting their labor.

It looks like it’s working, too: Since 1975, rising income inequality has transferred nearly $47 trillion to the top 10% of earners from the bottom 90%, according to a 2020 working paper published by Carter C. Price and Kathryn Edwards of the RAND Corporation.

Another 2020 report by Jesse Capece for the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation found “minimal evidence to suggest that mandating people on probation to adhere to various stipulations reduces their likelihood to recidivate.” What was more likely, he offered, was that recidivism was driven by the lack of a job, which often resulted from those very stipulations. See: The Effects of Probation Stipulations on Employment Quality Among People on Probation (July 2020).

The PPI report found that over half of those leaving probation or parole in 2021 – 56% – had their status revoked, for violating terms that include not only visits with supervision officers but also payment of supervision fees. That moved more than 230,000 people from supervision into prison or jail in one year, at a cost of over $8 billion to the 41 states where it could be calculated by the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

As long as the economic needs of the prison/industrial complex trump those of probationers and parolees, this trend most likely won’t be interrupted – transferring more wealth to the top 10% of earners not only from them but also from rest of the bottom 90%.  

Additional source: Time

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