Criminal Justice Reform Part III, Beyond Prison


The Definition: Probation Versus Parole

  • Probation and parole are both alternatives to incarceration, but, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics: “Probation refers to adult offenders whom courts place on supervision in the community through a probation agency, generally in lieu of incarceration…

  • “Parole refers to criminal offenders who are conditionally released from prison to serve the remaining portion of their sentence in the community.”

The Issue

  • On any given day in the U.S., there are an estimated 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons and another 750,000 in county jails (most still awaiting trial). That’s almost 2.3 million people behind bars. On top of that, there are nearly 4.5 million people who are on probation or parole (referred to as community supervision). Roughly one-third of this population is black.

  • Although states vary widely when it comes to their use of prisons and jails, there is a far greater divergence in their use of probation. While Georgia has the highest probation rate at 3,943 per 100,000 of the state's population, New Hampshire has the lowest rate at 291 per 100,000.

  • Probation is often depicted as a more “lenient” punishment, but this doesn't quite fit with the stats. Only about half of people who receive parole or probation successfully complete their supervision terms, which are typically very long and involve strict conditions as well as intense scrutiny. For many of those who “fail” their supervision terms, this means going to prison.

  • This is one of the major problems with probation and parole conditions: they end up creating a “revolving door” between community supervision and incarceration. The close scrutiny under which people on parole or probation live can lead to their being caught committing the sort of low-level offending (i.e. drug use) or technical violations (such as breaking curfew), which would never usually land someone in prison and would usually be met with a fine or drug treatment, if anything at all. But, for those under community supervision, such infractions can lead to incarceration.

  • In a given year, almost 350,000 people move from community supervision to prison or jail.

  • Even though the number of people in the parole or probation system comprises almost two-thirds of those in the entire criminal justice system, it receives far less attention than incarceration when it comes to reform efforts. So, in the final section of our three-part series on criminal justice reform, we’re turning our attention to this under-discussed yet critical component of America’s judicial system.

What the Candidates Say On Criminal Justice Reform:

  • President Trump: Signed into law the most significant criminal-justice-reform bill in decades, a bipartisan effort called the First Step Act. “We’re all better off when former inmates can receive and reënter society as law-abiding, productive citizens," he said while endorsing the bill.

  • Senator Cory Booker: Focused on passing the Next Step Act, which he depicts as the follow-up to the First Step Act and which aims to "lower mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses, give formerly incarcerated people the right to vote, and reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses from 18-to-1 to 1-to-1" amongst other things. He alsoproposes using executive action to offer clemency to thousands of nonviolent drug offenders on his first day in office.

  • Senator Kirsten Gillibrand: Focused on improving conditions for women in prison. Last year she introduced bipartisan legislation, the "Pregnant Women in Custody Act of 2018", which seeks to protect pregnant women in federal prisons.

  • Senator Kamala Harris: Introduced the 'Ensuring Quality Access to Legal Defense' (EQUAL) Act to help level the playing field between prosecutors and public defenders.

  • Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro: Focused on reforming the police system through his People First Policing Plan. “If we want to be the fairest nation on earth, we must reform and re-imagine our criminal justice system. For too many people of color in the country, one interaction with the police can become fatal. It doesn’t have to be that way", he said when introducing the plan.

  • Senator Amy Klobuchar: Proposed creating a "clemency advisory board as well as a position in the White House -- outside of the Department of Justice -- that advises the president from a criminal justice reform perspective." She also wants to create a Second Step Act to tackle inflexible mandatory minimum sentencing and improve conditions in state and local jails, amongst other things.

  • Former Representative Beto O'Rourke: Endorsed a series of criminal justice reform proposals including ending cash bail at the state level, banning for-profit prisons, ending mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, ending the federal prohibition on marijuana and confronting the "over-policing of black and brown neighborhoods".

  • Senator Bernie Sanders: Endorsed a number of reforms including "No more private prisons and detention centers. No more profiteering from locking people up. No more “war on drugs.” No more keeping people in jail because they’re too poor to afford cash bail."

  • Senator Elizabeth Warren: Supports banning private prisons and detention facilities, ending mandatory minimums, legalizing marijuana and expunging criminal records for people convicted of "minor marijuana crimes."


The #FreeMeekMills Movement

Rapper Meek Mills has a platinum album, a top legal team, and a litany of high-profile voices advocating for him - Jay Z and New England Patriots owner, Robert Kraft, being among them. But this still hasn’t enabled him to escape the worst aspects of the Kafka-Esq maze that is America’s probation system. Since being convicted in 2008 of gun and drug charges (he was carrying a gun while walking to a corner store) Mills has spent the past 11 years in and out of the U.S. judicial system due to minor parole infringements, a series of punishments that campaigners argue are exceedingly disproportionate to his initial crime. In this episode, Mills discusses how his experience exposes the many pitfalls of the U.S. judicial system, and the movement he’s started to try and reform it.



It Broke. Fix It.

In the face of America’s mass incarceration crisis, support for criminal justice reform has been gaining momentum on both sides of the political aisle. But many of the issues that plague the carceral system also undermine the probation system too, yet are more frequently overlooked in discussions around reform. In this episode, we hear from a former New York City Commissioner from the Department of Probation on how the bureaucracy of the system has grown far larger than anyone anticipated, yet remains chronically under-funded and thus increasingly unmanageable. In a discussion that turns to the reforms needed to amend America’s ‘broken’ probation system, we also hear from several former prisoners on their experience of being on parole.



Five Things You Need To Know About The Criminal Justice System

Did you know that nearly half a million unconvicted people are held in jail for months in the U.S., just because they can’t afford bail (including 70% of the people held in local jails)? Or that the commercial bail bond industry is a $2 billion a year industry? Or that the current bail system drives people to plead guilty - even when they’re not?
In this episode, Pantsuit Politics discusses the five main issues you need to know about the criminal justice system in the U.S.: paying bail, navigating the court system, the inequity within sentencing, punishment after prison, and, finally, the death penalty. The final episode in our three-part series on criminal justice reform in the U.S., this gives an excellent overview of the myriad issues we’ve covered.