Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice

Robina Funds Phelps' Study of “Mass Probation” in the United States

Mass Probation Study

Between 1980 and 2010, the number of people under state probation supervision in the United States increased from 1.1 to 4.1 million people. An ongoing, Robina-funded project by Michelle Phelps, assistant professor of sociology and Robina Institute faculty member, is working to better understand this trend, which she terms “mass probation.”

The increase in probation has accompanied an unparalleled U.S. expansion in imprisonment in the past four decades, as the number of people in state prisons grew from 300,000 to 1.3 million between 1980 and 2010. But scholars have been much slower to take note of the increases in probation, or to question how growth in probation and incarceration might be related.

Phelps is helping to fill this gap by examining variations in the extent to which states have embraced mass probation. Her research involves state-level case studies of the policy choices that led to the various systems we now see across U.S. states.

“Instead of a strong correlation between probation and imprisonment rates, which we would expect if these were two sides of one punitive coin, the research suggests that some states rapidly expanded probation, others imprisonment, and still others both (or neither),” Phelps said.

To develop a true understanding of the scale of punishment, she added, “we must consider probation alongside imprisonment.”

“In particular, progressive states such as Minnesota, which are often held out in the literature as states that avoided ‘high crime politics,’ instead are revealed to have tremendously large correctional populations. These states simply funneled the growing population into probation rather than imprisonment.”