Prison And Probation In America

1 Mar

America locks up over two and a quarter million of its citizens – a greater proportion than any other country. What is less well known is that almost five million people are also subject to probation and parole supervision.

America leads the world in imprisonment.  The nation’s 5,000 plus jails and prisons incarcerate over two and a quarter million people. It remains a paradox that the planet’s richest nation, the ‘land of the free’, locks up a quarter of all the prisoners on planet earth. This means that one in every 100 adult American citizens is behind bars.

These statistics, which reflect America’s umbilical attachment to incarceration, are well known to criminologists the world over, yet they still maintain their capacity to shock. The USA’s imprisonment rate is up to 10 times greater than that of most developed, industrialised countries.

Republican and Democratic governments alike have turned to imprisonment as their penal policy of first resort. Key factors that have contributed to imprisonment’s relentless rise include:

  • longer prisons terms as part of the war on drugs;
  • ‘three strikes’ laws, which mean long mandatory prison sentences for those convicted of a felony at least three times;
  • mandatory minimum sentences, which leave no room for judicial discretion in imposing lengthy prison sentences.

At the end of 2010, the prison population very slightly declined (by 0.6 percent). This however, was the first fall in the total population behind bars in nearly four decades, and a decline in prisoners has yet to establish itself. American remains the incarceration nation.

As George W. Bush blithely asserted in his gubernatorial campaign in Texas prior to his presidency, ‘Incarceration is rehabilitation’. The Orwellian clarity of this statement neatly summarises the entrenched perspective on penal policy within the Republican party. (If Texas was an independent country, it would boast the world’s highest imprisonment rate – not to mention the most frequent use of the death penalty in any US state.)

While academic attention has long focused upon America as the global leader for incarceration, less criminological notice has been taken of the widespread use of probation intervention.

Almost 4.9 million people were supervised in the community on probation or parole at the end of 2010. This staggeringly high figure is is the equivalent of probation supervision for 1 in every 48 US adult citizens. It also helps explain why America employs  over 93,000 probation officers and correctional treatment specialists.

Though probation was traditionally regarded as most appropriate for low-risk offenders in the USA, probation staff have begin to supervise offenders who pose a higher risk, both of reoffending and to public protection.

The maximum duration of a period of probation supervision is five years. Officers with caseloads of 200-300 clients are no longer unusual, which clearly limits the work that may be done to address the mix of complex issues which many contribute to reoffending. The average person on probation may have no more that 15 minutes contact time with their supervisor.

This reflects penal priorities  in the USA; over nine tenths of the correctional budget is spent on imprisonment, despite the fact about around 7 in every 10 offenders are in the community. People on probation (4,055,514 in total) account for the majority (83%) of all of those subject to community supervision. Parolees (840,676 in total) accounted for a smaller share (17%) of those on supervision.

As with the prison population, the number of people on community supervision population is now beginning to very slightly decrease. The number of people on probation fell slightly, though the number of parolees increased. People who breached the conditions of their probation during 2010 were incarcerated at rate of 5.7%.

About threequarters of people on probation were male, and a quarter were female. Over half of the probation population was white, while 30% was black and 13% was Hispanic. Both black people and Hispanic people are disproportionately represented in the probation population (just as they are in the prison system).

Around three quarters of people on probation and four fifths of parolees are on ‘active probation’. The means that they must report in person on a regular basis to a probation or parole authority in person (or sometimes by telephone or email).  Property offenders make up 28% of those on probation, while drug offenders comprise over a quarter of probationers. Just under a fifth of people on probation are supervised for a violent offence.

One area in US probation would be unrecognisable to UK probation practitioners: the collection of ‘user fees’. Charging the user for the privilege of being supervised is growing in popularity in America. Some American probation services users have to pay a supervision fee of up to $100 per month.

This is not new; Michigan was charging fees to users as early as 1929, and more than half of all US states were collecting fees by 1990. In the state of Texas in 1990, probation supervision fees charged to probation service users raised a total of $57 million, which was more than half of the entire supervision budget.

Probation service users who are already coping with a range of problematic social issues in their lives, finding $100 to pay for their next probation appointment is often not prioritised. Failure to pay can mean a return to court, and then incarceration. The imperative to collect fees may also impact on probation staff’s capacity to support rehabilitation.

Many American probation officers now carry guns. While firearms are not universally used, most US states have provision for armed officers. Within the federal justice system, too, most districts allow federal probation officers to carry guns.

The harsh economic climate has hit US probation hard. Some 31 states made cut their corrections budgets in 2010. This has hit programmes geared at changing offenders’ behaviour hard.

Nevertheless, probation still enjoys substantial political and popular support. It remains the preferred sentencing option in the US criminal justice system.

Further reading:

Teague, M. 2011. Probation in America: Armed, private and unaffordable? Probation Journal, 58. pp.317-332

Curated web resource on US prisons

Advertisements

2 Responses to “Prison And Probation In America”

  1. Douglas Joseph Dahlin December 8, 2012 at 10:21 pm #

    Can’t wait to leave all these rules behind.

    • Douglas Joseph Dahlin December 8, 2012 at 10:21 pm #

      Awaiting moderation in a country that had freedom of speech. How sad.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s