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Are Parole and Probation Rules Setting People Up for Failure?

On behalf of Dolan + Zimmerman LLP October 18, 2019

People who have committed parole or probation violations make up a surprisingly large proportion of the prison population in the U.S. Some 280,000 parole or probation violators are incarcerated at any given time.

In 13 states, they account for a third of all prisoners. In four states, they make up half the prison population. Nationwide, they account for 45 percent of state prison admissions.

Parole and probation were created as alternatives to prison, but in many cases the rules are so easy to violate that the system simply reincarcerates huge numbers of people. And, according to new research from the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, many of the violations are technical in nature.

In other words, states are spending billions locking up people because of repeated minor violations, including missed appointments, missed drug tests, or curfew violations. The new research represents the first time this type of data has been collected in all 50 states.

Nationally, the CSG Justice Center estimates the cost of incarcerating people for technical violations at approximately $2.8 billion. Overall, the cost of incarcerating people for parole and probation violations is around $9.3 billion.

In Colorado, people who have violated parole or probation make up about 52% of new admissions to prison and about 19% of the overall prison population.

Do states need to crack down on supervision violations?

Many states are acting on the assumption that harsh results for even minor violations are necessary in order to reduce recidivism. According to an article in Governing magazine, however, reincarcerating people for these violations has some serious downsides.

For example, if the parolee or probationer has managed to secure a job, they’ll lose that opportunity if they get sent back to prison.  The loss of a job combined with incarceration can result in a life-long setback. It can also cause the loss of government benefits and increase the chance they will abuse drugs.

Some rules can be so hard for the average prisoner to follow that even corrections officials admit the problem. For example, a condition of parole or probation may be to avoid other people with certain types of criminal records. With few resources outside their original communities, such as a Boulder defense lawyer, many people have no choice.