As candidates search for criminal justice talking points, parole and probation reform should top list

America's supervision system, which often re-incarcerates people who haven't committed new crimes, costs $9.3 billion a year.

Imagine a city about the size of Los Angeles, where the entire population lives with the knowledge that the smallest infraction — a traffic ticket, a failed drug test, a missed curfew — could land them in prison.

This isn’t some fictional dystopia. For 4.5 million people in the United States, it’s reality. That's the number of folks in this country who are on probation or parole, and those individuals can, and do, end up incarcerated even if they’ve not been accused of a new crime.

Probation and parole are supposed to serve as either a productive alternative to incarceration or a guideway out of the criminal justice system. The reality, however, is that mandated supervision acts more like a tripwire that, if triggered by even the slightest action, can mean a return to lockup.

As the bipartisan movement to improve our criminal justice system continues its push across the country — and presidential candidates discuss the best ways to lower incarceration rates — reforming probation and parole presents an opportunity that should top the list. Improving methods of supervision in this country will allow us to use the sanction of prison more thoughtfully and sparingly, all while making the public safer.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, left, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Kamala Harris during the second night of the Democratic presidential debates in Miami.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, left, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Kamala Harris during the second night of the Democratic presidential debates in Miami.

POLICING THE USA: A look at race, justice, media

A quarter of all state prison admissions nationwide are due to technical violations of probation or parole. Essentially, people are getting incarcerated for breaking even the smallest of supervision rules, like missing an appointment with a parole officer, costing states nearly $2.8 billion a year.

Add the number of people who allegedly commit a new crime, and prison admissions due to parole and probation violations jump to 45%. The cost of incarceration jumps to $9.3 billion. In short, we're buying less public safety.

In 20 states, the majority of prison admissions are due to these violations.

Instead of moving people away from prison, the use of parole and probation is a prime contributor to still stubbornly high incarceration rates. This undermines people’s ability to reintegrate into a free society after conviction.

The nation can and should focus efforts and resources on reducing new criminal behavior. By keeping people out of prison, we can better ensure that they keep their jobs, stay connected to their families and have a fair chance at contributing to society.

The nation's probation and parole disproportionately burdens poor and minority communities. Black Americans account for more than 30% of the people on probation and parole, despite being only 13% of the U.S. population. How can we expect people to live successful lives when they’re under the constant scrutiny of unforgiving criminal justice supervision?

Red and blue states alike have prison systems that are straining under the weight of incarcerating significant numbers of people who have violated their supervision.

State lawmakers need to start looking at their own statistics and asking whether probation and parole are serving their intended goals. What types of new offenses are responsible for supervision revocations? What practices and programs can discourage people under supervision from committing new crimes? What is a better way to handle technical violations?

Some of these questions are already being asked, answered and acted upon by states committed to combating the issue. For example, a host of changes in Michigan, including diversion programs for supervision violators, helped drop its supervision violations considerably from 2013 to 2018, including reducing the number of people sent back to prison for probation violations by 21%.

Many leading probation and parole practitioners have also been issuing the clarion call for action, advocating for greater emphasis on the supportive aspects of their profession and ending the nonsensical, punitive aspects. People who have experienced supervision also have made clear that the status quo often hinders their success. Lawmakers would do well to heed their voices.

It is seductively simple to allow probation and parole to devolve into a nationwide game of gotcha. “Trail 'em, nail 'em and jail 'em” (an attitude that, according to a Harvard Kennedy School study, has come to define our criminal justice system) is easier to implement than the vital work of helping people who have made mistakes live productive, crime-free lives.

But taxpayers deserve to have their dollars spent wisely and in a way that enhances their safety. And the 4.5 million Americans living under correctional supervision should have the confidence that we’re not lying in wait for their smallest failure, but rather rooting for their biggest success.

Megan Quattlebaum is the director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which conducted a state-by-state study on probation and parole. Juliene James is the criminal justice director at Arnold Ventures, which funded the study.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: As candidates search for criminal justice talking points, parole and probation reform should top list