Parole and Probation Reform in the COVID-19 Era

The Justice Lab’s Vincent Schiraldi talks to Columbia News about the center’s work that is featured in a new Human Rights Watch and ACLU report.

Caroline Harting
July 31, 2020

Columbia University’s Justice Lab produces research and engages with diverse constituencies to reduce incarceration rates, keep youth out of the criminal justice system and reform parole and probation, among other issues. A new in-depth report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the ACLU, Revoked: How Probation and Parole Feed Mass Incarceration in the United States, uses Justice Lab’s research, as well as research by other scholars and their own original research, to underscore the urgent need to reform parole and probation. Vincent Schiraldi, the co-director with Bruce Western of the Justice Lab, explains why Human Rights Watch and the ACLU chose to use their research, why COVID-19 is exposing the dangers of the current parole and probation systems and how we need to learn about the 19th century origins of these systems to move forward.

Q: How did the Justice Lab get involved in the HRW/ACLU report, "Revoked: How Probation and Parole Feed Mass Incarceration in the United States?" 

A: The Justice Lab envisions a community-centered future for justice in which healing and resiliency, rather than punishment and surveillance, are used to solve social problems often rooted in racial and economic inequity. Because our mission includes engagement of diverse communities, we constantly interact with formerly incarcerated people, advocates and activists and government policy makers and implementers, in addition to academics. In this way, we came to the attention of Allison Frankel, primary author of the HRW/ACLU Revoked report. Allie interviewed Kendra Bradner, director of the Justice Lab’s Probation and Parole Project, who discussed our national research, our research on Pennsylvania and Wisconsin (two of the three states her report highlighted), our report on racial disparities in community supervision and the overall negative effects probation and parole were having in adding to, rather than reducing, mass incarceration. They also talked about EXiT, an association of 85 probation and parole commissioners we have assembled who have called for a cessation of “mass supervision.” Allie cited us, as well as other researchers, in her excellent report and then invited me to participate in the report’s release.

Q: What Justice Lab research did the report cite, and how was the research incorporated into it?

A: The Justice Lab released The Pennsylvania Community Corrections Story and The Wisconsin Community Corrections Story in April 2018 and January 2019, respectively. In fact, we released the Pennsylvania paper the same day Meek Mill—hip-hop artist and criminal justice activist—was released from prison. Mill had been sentenced to two to four years for trivial probation violations, probation he had been on for an astonishing 11 years. The paper showed that there were as many people on probation and parole in Pennsylvania as lived in Pittsburgh, and that half of the people in Philadelphia’s jails were locked up, not for new crimes, but for a technical, non-criminal violation of their probation or parole. The Wisconsin report showed that half of those in Wisconsin prisons were under supervision when they were incarcerated and an unforgivable one in eight Black men and one in 11 Native American men in Wisconsin are under community supervision. These papers, as well as several other publications by the Justice Lab, featured prominently in Revoked.

Q: Your reform of NYC's probation system while you were the Commissioner of the NYC Department of Probation is highlighted in the report as a model of how parole and probation systems should work. What basic elements are at the core of a compassionate and effective parole and probation model?

A: First and foremost, we have to shrink the beast. There are just too many people on probation and parole in the United States —4.5 million people, which is twice as many as are incarcerated and more people than live in most U.S. states. Second, we have to reduce the incredible number of conditions they have to live by, stop charging them crippling amounts of money to pay for the privilege of being surveilled and stop incarcerating them when they don’t commit new crimes. And once we “do less harm” we have to “do more good.” By this I mean, doing the kinds of things any of us would want for our sons or daughters if they were on probation—help completing their education, finding a job, obtaining stable housing, kicking their drug habit or finding mental health care. With the $2.6 billion we spend annually locking people up for technical violations in America, we could buy a lot of supports for people who have run afoul of the law. I suggest we design those supports hand-in-hand with communities and the people who are under supervision, they’ll know way better than we “experts” do what they need to make it.

Q: Has the coronavirus pandemic made parole and probation reform more urgent? If so, why?

A: It wasn’t such a great idea to be imprisoning hundreds of thousands of people a year for non-criminal acts like missing appointments or testing positive for drugs, even before the pandemic. Now it’s indefensible. The first people to die of COVID-19 at Rikers—Michael Tyson and Raymond Rivera—caught it while locked up there for technical parole violations. Since the pandemic, two-thirds of probation and parole departments around the country have stopped requiring office visits and stopped issuing warrants for people’s arrest for technical violations. And you know what? The sky didn’t fall. I know we all want to get back to normal after the pandemic, but community supervision is an area where that should not get back to normal.

Q: What impact do you hope the report will have on probation and parole systems?

A: Probation and parole were originated in the 19th century as overtly progressive projects to divert people from incarceration (probation), or release them early due to good behavior (parole). They were unapologetically rehabilitative, at a time when we still believed as a society that that was possible. When rehabilitation was declared “dead” and criminal justice was further racialized and politicized in the 1970s, probation and parole morphed into largely punitive extensions of corrections and law enforcement. Their populations increased nearly four-fold. Now we need to reverse course, shrink supervision down to a manageable size or completely abolish it, and find more innovative ways to help people and communities so they can enjoy, as my Justice Lab colleague Bruce Western calls it, a “thick” brand of public safety, rather than the “thin” kind that incarceration and surveillance produce.