A majority of offenders end up back in prison. Here are steps we can take to improve the criminal justice system.

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The government has enacted prison reforms, but there’s still more to be done for the incarcerated population after release.

According to Pew Research, starting in 2007, policymakers initiated bipartisan reforms that reduced the number of people behind bars in many states to protect public safety, improve accountability, and save taxpayer dollars. Yet, the new regulations overlooked community supervision, which is the largest part of the correctional system.

The most recent data says that 4.5 million people in the US are on probation or parole, which doubles the incarcerated population across state and federal prisons and local jails. As a result, the community supervision system has become overloaded, leading to questions surrounding its effectiveness. According to Next City, 25% of people who entered prison in 2017 were there because of non-criminal, technical supervision violations that amounted to $2.8 billion.

Probation vs. parole

Probation refers to a sentence of conditional release involving a convicted individual being released to the community under supervision of the court. For a specified period of time, the probationer is assigned to a supervision officer who is responsible for assessing the probationer’s risk to the community and ensuring compliance to court-imposed conditions of release.

Parole is an administrative release after serving time in prison. Prisoners may be released from imprisonment before their sentence expires if they’re not a risk to society and if they’re willing and able to meet conditions set by the parole board.

Issues surrounding probation and parole

With the number of people on probation and parole, it’s easy to see how only a couple of factors begin to create issues in the criminal justice system.

Probation

Early probation officers were volunteers. As workloads grew, they became paid professionals, with most probation officers coming from law enforcement. That eventually created problems.

The book “The Encyclopedia of Crime & Punishment” explains the history of probation: Early probation work was a formal occupation, but officers had “loosely comprised goals and ideologies, with a largely social work strategy relying on rehabilitative techniques.”

“This work often conflicted with law enforcement goals, which emphasize control and authority. Therefore, from the very start, the field of probation was characterized by unclear and contradictory goals of rehabilitation/reform and law enforcement/control,” according to the book.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the brokerage model exposed weaknesses, including probation officers referring probationers to community resources and services instead of providing those services directly. And then, over the next three decades, a shift began toward a supervisory model emphasizing surveillance and monitoring over rehabilitation.

More recently, probation agencies have been experiencing a push toward evidence-based practices, and the current emphasis is the risk-need-responsibility model. It outlines basic principles of risk, need, and responsivity to create effective interventions that improve treatment for offenders and reduce future offenses. Research shows that probation officers struggle with many aspects needed to work within the model. Many probation officers seek more restrictive measures on risk and need assessment instruments than needed, and those instruments are widely underutilized.

Parole

Parole officers are also trying to balance law enforcement officer and social worker roles — and given the overwhelming number of parolees that agents oversee, they’re struggling.

Some critics question whether there’s a conflicting nature in those dual obligations. According to “The Encyclopedia of Corrections,” safety and security dimensions of their jobs are prioritized, leaving the service role as an afterthought, leading some to question whether parole itself is effective. In one report from the US Department of Justice, more than 67% of offenders released from prison in 2005 were rearrested within three years of release.

Parole officers experience stress and role conflict surrounding the need to balance two major and potentially opposing goals. There’s general agreement about their caseloads being too large. Another major issue surrounding parole agents is the difficulty recruiting and retaining good agents. They’re not paid well, and they’re often blamed for crimes that parolees commit.

The book explains that parole boards are another source of controversy. The composition of parole boards can vary, and some states don’t have written qualifications — community members who have no experience or education in corrections can be selected to serve on parole boards.

Probation and parole reform

Originally, community corrections intended to not only undermine growth in prison populations, but also help people who had broken the law to get their lives back. According to a study from Harvard Kennedy School, “as our nation grew increasingly punitive over the last four decades, the ethic of community corrections too often shifted from its original mission to one of ‘trail ’em, nail ’em, and jail ’em.”

Probation and parole practitioners have already called for more action that promotes the supportive aspects of each method of supervision. Greater awareness and advocacy can help probation and parole receive the attention necessary for real change.

Online criminal justice degrees can give you the education needed to take part in the conversation. Campbellsville University’s online MS in justice studies offers a public service leadership and social justice track that’s ideal for pursuing roles in criminal justice reform. If you’re a prospective undergraduate student, you can obtain a solid foundation for your career goals with an online associate degree in criminal justice or an online bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

Learn more about Campbellsville University’s criminal justice courses here.

This post was created by Campbellsville University and Insider Studios.

Campbellsville University is fully accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).

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