March 2, 2016
It is well known that the U.S. leads the world in incarceration rates. This Data Brief shows that, compared with Europe, America is similarly “exceptional” for its high rates of probation supervision. The average probation supervision rate for all fifty states is more than five times the average rate for all European countries included in the most recent Council of Europe data. Several U.S. States with the highest rates of probation supervision (e.g., Ohio, Rhode Island, Idaho, and Indiana) have rates that are eight-to-nine times the average European rate. Such stark differences exist despite the fact that many countries in Europe have overall crime rates that are quite similar to the U.S.
This Data Brief demonstrates for the first time that America suffers from “mass probation” in addition to “mass incarceration.” Although probation has often been thought of as an “alternative” to prison or jail sentences, the U.S. has achieved exceptional levels of punitiveness in both incarceration and community supervision. Over the past several decades, the number of people under probation supervision in the U.S. has increased greatly. Nearly 4 million adults were under probation supervision across America at year-end 2013. In all reporting European countries, with roughly twice the population of the U.S., only 1.5 million adults were under probation supervision.
These findings lead to many important questions of law and policy. Most states should closely reexamine the numbers of people who are placed on probation each year, and the lengths of terms they are required to serve. Options for “early termination” of the lowest-risk and most successful probationers should be explored. Some experts in the field allege that probationary sentences do little to control crime, and frequently do more harm than good. Community supervision can make offenders’ “reentry” into the law-abiding community more difficult than it needs to be, such as when meetings with probation officers interfere with work responsibilities, or supervision and program fees block probationers’ ability to support themselves and their families. Concerns of this kind should be carefully evaluated by lawmakers in every state. If some uses of probation are counterproductive to the reentry process, or outright “criminogenic,” it should be a high priority everywhere to discontinue them. The financial expense and opportunity costs of “mass probation” should also be assessed nationwide. High probation supervision rates cost American taxpayers a great deal of money, and not just in the funding of probation agencies. National data suggest that a large share of all prison admissions come from probation revocations—a substantial number of which are for “technical” violations of sentence conditions rather than new criminal conduct. Far from being an “alternative” to incarceration, probation has been a “feeder” institution or a “conduit” to our prisons and jails. In this respect, misguided probation policy has almost certainly been a major contributor to America’s excesses in prison policy. The problems of mass incarceration and mass probation are intimately linked, and they must be tackled together.
Finally, the Data Brief raises broad questions beyond the realm of probation, some of which are impossible to resolve with existing data: Is America equally exceptional in its rates of parole supervision? (The answer is yes, as will be seen in a forthcoming Data Brief from the Robina Institute). Is the U.S. an outlier, by world standards, in the crushing “criminal justice debt” burdens placed on offenders—who are usually poor, and have often been convicted only of minor crimes? Is the U.S. likewise exceptional in the number of debilitating “collateral sanctions” imposed on offenders, which often cut off employment opportunities, public welfare benefits, and access to public housing? No hard data exist on financial and collateral sanctions, but anecdotal evidence suggests that suppositions of American Exceptionalism, here too, are reasonable. The Data Brief’s message of “American Exceptionalism in Probation Supervision” is compelling evidence that our country’s use of many forms of criminal penalties—well beyond incarceration and the death penalty—are strikingly out of step with other Western democracies.
For more information on the Robina Institute’s Probation Revocation Project, visit www.robinainstitute.org/probation-revocation-project/