Guest Commentary: Community Supervision, Once Intended to Help Offenders, Contributes More to Mass Incarceration

Mass Incarceration

Mass Incarceration

Justice officials are recognizing that community supervision can be a tripwire that perpetuates incarceration based on crimeless technical violations

By Miriam Aroni Krinsky and Vincent Schiraldi

One of the first people to die of COVID-19 in New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail system was Raymond Rivera — a 55-year-old father and husband who lost his life in April. The “offense” that ultimately resulted in a death sentence for Rivera? Leaving a drug program without permission — a minor technical violation of the parole he was on for stealing a motorcycle cover and some bicycles.

There’s a common misconception that probation and parole — sometimes called community supervision — are more lenient alternatives to incarceration. But justice officials are recognizing that community supervision can be a tripwire that perpetuates incarceration based on crimeless technical violations like the one that resulted in Rivera’s incarceration and, ultimately, death.

That’s why more than 50 reform-minded elected prosecutors have joined 90 current and former probation and parole leaders this week in issuing a statement calling for eliminating incarceration for technical parole and probation violations, reducing reincarceration for low-level new offenses by those under supervision, downsizing probation and parole, and making supervision remains “less punitive and more hopeful, equitable and restorative.”

These system actors have seen firsthand that governments often put too many onerous conditions on people under supervision: Stay away from family members with records; don’t change your address; come in for drug testing; check in frequently while holding down a job and caring for your family. Individuals under community supervision are one missed appointment, one curfew violation or one late-fee payment away from a technical violation and possible imprisonment. We’ve created a system that too often sets people up for failure by requiring individuals who are trying to get back on their feet to be superhuman and error free.

Rivera was hardly alone. Almost 25% of people entering prison in 2017 were incarcerated for a technical supervision violation, rather than a new offense.

Kerry Lathan, who was a bystander shot alongside Grammy award-winning musician and philanthropist Nipsey Hussle, was then incarcerated for a technical violation for associating with Hussle, a known gang member.

It turns out, probation and parole too often don’t serve as solutions to mass incarceration. They can be, as the joint statement recognizes, “overly burdensome, punitive and a driver of mass incarceration, especially for people of color.”

Over the past four decades, community supervision has ballooned. About 4.4 million people were under supervision in the USA in 2018. That is nearly twice the number of people who are incarcerated in our nation’s jails and prisons.

In some jurisdictions, prison populations are falling, but admissions for supervision violations are rising. Reforms have largely overlooked the system of probation and parole that fuels incarceration through technical violations, without promoting public safety.

In 2017 alone, U.S. taxpayers spent $2.8 billion on the people who entered prison for a technical violation. It would clearly be a much greater boon to wellness and safety if scarce resources were used to address the housing, education, health and employment needs of those under supervision, rather than disrupting people’s lives, families and communities through unnecessary incarceration.

As a former prosecutor and former probation commissioner, we’ve seen firsthand how probation and parole contribute to incarceration of Black and Latinx communities, with technical violations exacerbating underlying issues like structural racism, substance use, housing insecurity and mental health, to name a few. Black people are more likely to be charged with parole violations than whites.

Rivera’s death wasn’t just a tragedy. It was a grave injustice that is far too common — something those of us working in the system see too often.

Our nation is at a watershed moment, with communities across the country demanding that we reimagine public safety and our criminal legal system to better serve all members of our community. Seizing that moment is going to require tackling and fundamentally transforming probation and parole systems that are fueling the very prisons and jails they were originally designed to decarcerate.

Miriam Aroni Krinsky spent 15 years as a federal prosecutor and is the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution. Vincent Schiraldi is former commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation and co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab.  Originally published in the USA Today.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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