Behind a New Initiative to Reform Parole and Probation Nationwide

Ranta Images/shutterstock

Ranta Images/shutterstock

The many headlines devoted to America’s large prison population have thrust the issue of mass incarceration into the spotlight. However, they may also have diverted attention from a closely related problem: the even larger number of Americans on parole and probation. A leading funder of evidence-based work to improve public policy has teamed up with a top operating foundation to launch a major initiative aimed at transforming parole and probation, with an eye toward reducing prison populations. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation announced this new initiative in late 2018 and released a report on the subject with its partner, the Pew Charitable Trusts.

(Earlier this week, as we reported, Arnold announced a name change and a redesign of its logo and website. It is now known as Arnold Ventures, an umbrella organization that will manage both the Arnolds’ philanthropic and political giving.)

The nation’s prison population stands at about 2.2 million, but the number of Americans on parole and probation is more than double that, at 4.5 million, equal to the population of Kentucky. That number has tripled in the past 30 years.

While much philanthropic work on criminal justice reform has focused on the so-called front end of the system—looking to keep people out of prison to begin with— more funders have been paying attention to the swelling numbers of former prisoners re-entering society. In a moving op-ed piece, the CEO of the California Wellness Foundation, Judy Belk, recently wrote about the challenges faced by formerly incarcerated women and the need for philanthropy to do more for this population. Cal Wellness is one of a number of foundations that support re-entry initiatives that build job skills and financial assets.

Too often, though, the gains made by former prisoners in creating new lives for themselves are at risk of being washed away by inflexible and punitive systems of parole and probation.

The recent report from Arnold and Pew highlights the many problems of the current system of supervision, which often employs a one-size-fits-all approach that does not distinguish between low- and high-risk offenders. The system contains many onerous requirements that set up many released offenders for failure, often triggering a return to incarceration for technical violations of probation and parole conditions. Frequent in-person reporting requirements conflict with work and family responsibilities, which can undermine the very supports that foster successful reintegration, especially for low-risk offenders. Further, fines and fees associated with supervision disproportionately burden low-income offenders and their families.

More than 700,000 of the 2.3 million who exit parole and probation each year fail to complete their supervision, according to the report from Arnold and Pew. Worse, 350,000 return to prison or jail, often because of technical violations of the conditions of their release, rather than because of new criminal offenses.

The Arnold-Pew report found that 75 percent of people on probation or parole were convicted of non-violent offenses. It also found that African-Americans are disproportionately represented in parole and probation populations. While they represent 13 percent of the nation’s population, African-Americans account for 30 percent of the population under supervision.

The report advocates for changes in parole and probation that emphasize higher supervision of high-risk offenders. An evaluation of halfway house programs in Ohio found that recidivism declined nearly 5 percent among high-risk offenders, but increased among low-risk offenders — the latter being a much larger group.

Actions to reform parole and probation can reduce supervision populations without jeopardizing public safety. Between 2007 and 2016, 37 states reduced their community supervision populations while simultaneously reducing crime rates. Multiple factors impact state crime rates, and neither the Arnold-Pew report nor this post suggest any causal connection between community supervision and crime rates. At the very least, however, the report suggests that community supervision populations can be reduced without negatively impacting public safety.

Through its new initiative, Arnold hopes to encourage research and policy changes that will shift the focus of parole and probation from re-incarceration for failures, such as technical violations, to lowering crime and promoting successful reintegration into society. The funder also hopes to accelerate the adoption of evidence-based practices and reduce racial and economic disparities in community supervision. Arnold collected proposals through December 2018. We’ll report updates on the funded projects.