An article published in Reason on January 26, 2023, cited numerous problems in probation systems nationwide, describing them as a “quagmire.” For the article, the magazine, a publication of the Libertarian California-based Reason Foundation, profiled Jennifer Schroeder, who was handed a drug charge in Minnesota and ended up placed on probation for 40 years.
There she joined over three million Americans who were on probation at the end of 2020, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. That’s over half the total number of people under some form of criminal justice supervision in the U.S. While many states cap probation terms at five years or less for felony offenses, some allow supervision periods to extend as long as the maximum prison sentence for the charged offense – which can be decades or even life. Those states include Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington and – until recently – Minnesota, where Schroeder successfully advocated for a change in that state’s probation practices.
Probation terms can often be extended for technical violations, such as failing to pay fees or notify probation officers of a change in employment or residence. Even missing meetings can add months and years to a probation term. A 2020 report by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch found that people on community supervision – which includes both parole and probation – “must comply with an average of 10 to 20 conditions a day.”
While many of these conditions are not onerous, such as prohibitions on possessing firearms or using illegal drugs, others include not buying or selling a car without permission, or abstaining from alcohol use – even when the underlying charge did not involve alcohol – or avoiding “persons or places of disreputable or harmful character.” In New York, Georgia, Kansas, Texas and South Carolina, probationers are prohibited from engaging in vaguely-worded “injurious and vicious habits.”
Often, probation terms include evening curfews and require probationers to waive certain rights, such as consenting to searches at the whim of supervision officers, or not being able to travel outside the county without permission. About a third of people on probation reside in states that do not allow them to vote until their supervision period ends, according to an October 2022 report by The Sentencing Project.
Probationers are also required to pay supervision fees, ranging from $10 to over $200 a month, or sometimes a flat annual amount. Additional fees may apply for required treatment programs, electronic monitoring, drug tests, etc. In Georgia, “pay-only probation” is imposed on defendants for the sole purpose of paying court-ordered fees and charges; they remain on probation until the fees are paid. A few states are eliminating or restricting supervision fees, including, most recently, California, Delaware and Oregon.
Approximately 42-45% of new prison admissions nationwide are for community supervision violations – and about half of those involve technical violations; that is, they are not for new crimes. In Idaho, 80% of prison admissions in 2021 were due to violations of community supervision. Almost half of the people on parole or probation in Florida are revoked for violations each year. When probationers are found in violation, they are usually jailed without bond until a judge reviews their case – which can take months, during which they may lose their jobs, residence and even custody of their children.
Many critics of the U.S. probation system say it sets defendants up to fail by imposing numerous unnecessary restrictions and conditions, requiring them to obtain employment even though finding a job with a felony record is extremely difficult, and imposing fees and fines that impoverished probationers struggle to pay.
“Probation, it’s like a set up,” said Manuel Goggins, who was placed on five years of probation and then charged with violating it for missing a meeting with his probation officer because he was in a hospital. “Any little thing you do, they send you to jail.”
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