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Parole and Probation Accused of Driving Prison Growth

David M. Reutter

One alternative to incarceration that criminal justice reformers clamor for is probation or parole. A May 2023 report by Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) counted nearly 3.7 million people in the U.S. under some form of community supervision, nearly twice the number held in prisons and jails. The report also showed that parole and probation often operate as drivers of prison growth.

In Texas, with over 437,000 people on parole or probation, the state Board of Pardon and Paroles (BOPP) imposes stipulations that include mandatory substance abuse classes, alcohol abstinence and prohibitions on whom a parolee may associate with. To the extent these restrictions limit employment or housing opportunities, they make re-­entry into society upon release more difficult.

Since 2021, Marci Simmons has been on parole in Texas. Her conditions were written in a dense legalese that made it hard to understand all the ways she could violate them. “I have [attended] some college, and I had a hard time understanding that,” she said. Simmons’ stipulations prohibit her from having a checking or savings account, or a credit or debit card. Yet she is required to work. Unlike many other parolees, Simmons has family she can entrust to handle her financial affairs. Yet the restrictions create a quandary in caring for her grandmother with Alzheimer’s. “I’m scared to use her debit card to pay her bills,” Simmons admitted.

Others on parole must submit to electronic monitoring, usually with a GPS ankle monitor. Upon her release from prison in December 2018, Jennifer Toon was fitted with one and then subjected to hyper-­intensive supervision for the next year, mandated to submit written schedules for work, classes, church, recreation—even to go outside in her own yard. Her supervising parole officer approved only work and treatment classes, leaving her “devastated.” In a common refrain from those subjected to GPS monitoring, Toon also said the equipment often failed. Then there was the financial burden of footing the bill for her own GPS monitoring. As a result, Toon tells women still incarcerated: “I know you want to get out of prison, but if you’ve only got a year left on your sentence or two years left on your sentence, I’m going to tell you to ride it out.”

Another issue Toon confronted was reporting to the parole office. Due to a shortage of parole officers—the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has just under 1,200 in some 70 offices to supervise 103,000 parolees—those in rural areas like Toon must report to an office in another county. “[W]hen you don’t have any money and you don’t have a vehicle and your officer says be in Tyler and you live all the way in Henderson.… Well, how do I get there?” she wondered. “They’re going to violate me if I’m not there.”

The situation is not much better on the other side of the desk, where parole officers earn $42,000 to $67,000 annually to handle caseloads often double what they should be, leaving less time to assist each parolee.

“When I took this job, it was supposed to be about community supervision, reintegrating and helping people back into society,” one officer said. “That’s not what it’s about. It’s all about writing them up, violating them and revocation hearings.… Do I think we’re helping to make the community a better place? Absolutely not.”

Longtime Texas parole lawyer Gary Cohen said that while BOPP typically does not revoke parole for missing office visits or falling behind on fees, a “lockup period is kind of a slap in the wrist,” one that tells parolees, “Hey, we need to get your attention.… And if you mess up again the consequences may be harsher.”

With so many reincarcerations, University of Wisconsin Law School Associate Professor Cecelia Klingele said that probation and parole “have become important drivers of prison growth.” Clearly, an incarceration alternative is effective only if resources are devoted to assure it doesn’t merely open a revolving door back into prison. See: Punishment Beyond Prisons 2023: Incarceration and Supervision by State, PPI (May 2023).  


Additional source: Texas Observer

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