The idea of parole and probation was to reduce the number of people in prison, but states are spending millions on incarcerating people for technical violations of their supervision agreements. In Iowa, for example, 40% of the prison population is made up of parole and probation violators. And, 56% of all new prison admissions are for supervision violations -- 22% of them technical violations.
Across the U.S., technical supervision violations account for a quarter of all state prison admissions. Iowa compares favorably to the national average, but it still ranks in the top third of all states for percentage of the prison population made up of parolees and probationers and new prison admissions for supervision violations.
This information comes to us from a 50-state survey by the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center. Technical violations include things like messing up the paperwork, missing a drug test or appointment, or committing a curfew violation.
The CSG Justice Center also found that, nationwide, states are spending about $9.3 billion every year to incarcerate people for violations of their supervision. Approximately a third, or $2.8 billion, is for technical violations.
Parole and probation rules can simply be too hard to follow
With all that money and prison space spent on people who have committed no new crime, it's worth asking whether the rules for parole and probation are realistic. How serious are these violations and can they be avoided?
For example, one common condition of parole and probation is to avoid spending time with others who have criminal records. That can be extremely difficult if the person comes from a community where many of their contacts have done time. Most parolees and probationers have very limited opportunities to get out of their existing communities and start fresh.
"They're asked to do a laundry list of things," a criminology professor and former corrections official told Governing magazine. "Given their life circumstances -- having few resources, no transportation, very little money -- it becomes mission impossible from day one."
If states want to stop incarcerating so many people for minor or technical violations of supervision, reformers may need to convince judges to offer more realistic terms. Or, technical violations might be dealt with in a way other than incarceration.
Reducing re-incarceration rates for supervision violations that don't involve new crimes would seem to be a relatively easy way to reduce mass incarceration.