The problem with probation and parole

During the November election, voters across the country approved a slew of initiatives to reform police departments, curb the failed war on drugs, and reduce incarceration. But millions of…

During the November election, voters across the country approved a slew of initiatives to reform police departments, curb the failed war on drugs, and reduce incarceration. But millions of people are still being brutalized by a subtler, yet no less abusive, form of law enforcement: probation and parole.

Promoted as alternatives to incarceration, probation and parole have become systems of oppression and control, primarily over Black and brown people. To fully reckon with racial injustice and police abuses, we must reform these discriminatory systems of supervision. 

Take Willie White, a middle-age Black father I met in December 2019 at a jail in Lowndes County, Georgia. 

Like one in every 18 adults in Georgia, White is on supervision — in his case, probation for 10 years due to a 2015 marijuana conviction. In October 2019, White had been riding his bicycle through town when police approached him. He was arrested for possessing drugs, and ended up spending months in jail just waiting for a hearing to challenge allegations of violating his probation. 

Nearly 4.4 million people in the United States are on probation or parole, often for years. While under supervision, they must abide by numerous vague, difficult to follow, and oppressive conditions — including paying fines and fees many cannot afford; attending frequent meetings, often far away or during work hours; reporting every address change, even if they lack housing stability; and staying away from people with felony records.

This system is oppressive for everyone, but it disproportionately impacts Black people. Across the nation in 2016, one out of 23 Black people was on probation or parole, compared to one in 81 whites.

I spoke with a Black mother in a Pennsylvania jail just days before her third child was due. She had spent years in jail or on probation for charges she said stemmed from a longstanding substance use disorder. “I asked for programs,” she said, but her probation officer “didn’t want to hear that I need help; they just gave me time.”

Probation and parole were designed in the late nineteenth century to keep people out of jail and prison and help them to get needed services. But the “tough on crime” movement that began in the 1970s turned probation and parole into a means of racial control. Conditions toughened, sentences lengthened, monitoring increased, and sanctions for violations were heightened. Now these systems are fueling mass incarceration.

In 2017, nearly half the number of people entering state prisons in the United States were sent there for violating probation or parole. In states where Human Rights Watch conducted in-depth research — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Georgia — people are often locked up for minor rule violations, like failing to report an address change, or low-level crimes, like drug possession or disorderly conduct. 

Regardless of the allegations, people whose probation or parole are being revoked are often being sent to jails that are overcrowded, unsanitary, and now at risk for outbreaks of COVID-19. Black people bear the brunt of this enforcement: multiple studies show that supervision is more likely to result in re-incarceration for Black people than white people. 

To be sure, probation and parole do keep some people out of jail and prison. But in far too many cases, they lead people right back to a cell, while in large part failing to connect them with the services and resources they need. 

The movement to divest from police and invest in communities is important. But to protect Black lives, we must also divest from probation and parole, and invest those savings into increasing access to jobs, housing, education and health services.  

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This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.


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