There is nothing that can be called the "American system" of corrections (Michael Tonry)
The phrase "community corrections" is an umbrella term that encompasses everything from pretrial diversion to intermediate punishments. By definition, it includes any nonincarcerative, yet supervised way of dealing with offenders who are facing conviction or who have already been convicted. Probation and parole are the most well-known forms of community corrections, but the term also includes home confinement, electronic monitoring, day fine programs, work release, furloughs, halfway houses, restitution, community service, drug/alcohol checks, check-in programs, curfews, mediation and restorative justice centers, and any other offender monitoring or reporting program that walks the line between trust and safety.
There is tremendous variation by jurisdiction in how community corrections is done. However, there are at least four (4) things that all programs tend to have in common: (1) an emphasis on residential stability - that is, the place the offender is kept or located is either their home, a group home, or someplace made to look like a home - this being the philosophy of reintegration, maintaining family and residential ties to the community; (2) the provision of voluntary, and sometimes mandatory, professional services of a medical or psychological nature - this being the philosophy of rehabilitation, and also of trust, especially if the treatment or services provision is voluntary; (3) a focus on accountability, for both offender and supervisor, which means that a plan is put in place for the offender to measure progress as well as a system is put in place for the supervisor to (frequently) report progress; and (4) the function of economic efficiency, not only in the way offenders are expected to find and hold a job (or pursue an education), but in the way they would pay some or all of the costs. Community corrections helps alleviate prison overcrowding, keep the costs of criminal justice down, and represents a whole new way of looking at corrections as the end of the criminal justice process.
Of the many philosophies put forward, reintegration has long been regarded by many scholars as the ideal philosophy of choice, and some (Braithwaite 1989; Braithwaite & Pettit 1990) call this philosophy restorative justice, which is actually a broader term referring to a holistic approach that generates a complete change in life. The basic idea is that ex-offenders are only ready to re-join the community of free people when they come to recognize the injustice in the harm they have caused others. Restorative justice means redemption is earned through repairing injustice. Reintegration has somewhat different goals -- to prepare offenders to re-enter society and to prepare communities to accept ex-offenders. Reintegration also means full inclusion in a wider moral community, and contains the following components:
approval of the person
Approval of the person is approval as a person, not for what the person did, but for their basic humanity and potential to be a good person. Respectfulness is the basic decency in the way a person is treated. Forgiveness involves the act or ritual of charity. Pride is recognition of the talents and skills that people can contribute to their community. It is from these philosophical positions that criminal justice scholars critically examine, and are often critical of, community corrections, especially probation and parole.
PROBATION AND PAROLE
Close to four (4) million people, on any given day, are on probation. The offenses they are on probation for range from minor misdemeanors to moderate felonies. Probation is the most widely used sentence in criminal justice, and it is usually straight probation with at least monthly contact, instead of intensive probation, where the caseloads are lower and more frequent contact is expected. There are about 2,000 community correctional programs in the U.S., and many of them are state funded programs. Thirty (30) states combine their probation and parole agencies. These agencies usually maintain lists of employers willing to hire ex-offenders. A person on probation or parole is called a client, and the persons who supervise them are called POs. Technically, a probationer is still under the supervision of their original sentencing judge, and parolees are usually under the jurisdiction of a parole board. An offender becomes eligible for probation long before the original sentence is issued, in a background check that the probation office has done - called a pre-sentence investigation - to assist the judge at sentencing. In addition, most agencies utilize another form - called a need and risk assessment - which balances the offender's rehabilitative possibilities with the potential for danger to the community.
The size of a PO's caseload varies, depending upon location. In New York and California, for example, it's not unusual for a PO to have a caseload as high as 400 clients. In rural areas, the typical caseload is around 25 clients. Some overloaded jurisdictions have established drive-up windows, postcard mail-in programs, or digital palm scanning devices at central locations. Most probation programs can be called "pee 'em and see 'em" programs. There are some places, however, that emphasize frequent, random, face-to-face checks or home visits. Supervising offenders in the community requires proactive intervention and case management strategies. POs have the same arrest powers as police officers, and it is usually at their own discretion if they want to carry a weapon, although agency policies vary.
To become a probation officer, a bachelor's degree is usually required. There is also a written test for most jobs. In addition, about half of all agencies require a psychological test. There is usually a six-week pre-service training period, and in-service training is frequently emphasized. Salaries average in the low to mid-thirties, around $33,500 as a national average, but in some places, like Alaska, the salary can be as high as $83,000. The federal probation system pays quite well, significantly more than the states. In general, probation work pays better than parole work. Parole officers tend to come from backgrounds with two or three years of police or correctional officer work, and they have closer ties with law enforcement and/or corrections. Because the salaries are fairly adequate, and professionalization has occurred with college credentials, there is little turnover among personnel in this field. However, the work is stressful, and burnout is somewhat common.
John Augustus (1784-1859) is regarded as the "father" of probation because in Boston during the 1850s, he started attending criminal courts and offered to take carefully selected offenders into his home rather than see them sent to prison. At first, he only took drunkards, but by the time he died, he had successfully "binded out" and rehabilitated over 2,000 offenders. Massachusetts started the first public-funded probation office in 1878, and was soon followed by Missouri, Vermont, and Rhode Island. By 1925, all 48 states had probation as a regular part of their criminal justice system.
There are a variety of programs other than probation and parole. For example, there is Work Release, also known as day pass, day parole, temporary release, and work or education furloughs. It was first used in Vermont in 1906 when sheriffs allowed their jail inmates to work in the community during the day. Conjugal visits, where the offender is allowed to socialize in private with their spouse, are also a type of furlough. Furloughs originated in 1918 in Mississippi, and reached their peak of popularity in the 1970s and 80s, but public outrage since then has significantly cut back on their use. There are only about 5,000 clients on furlough at any given time nationwide. Research on day release programs has shown a beneficial effect on self-esteem, and release for educational purposes has been quite effective.
House arrest, or home confinement, is a fairly recent invention of the 1980s and 90s, where the offender must obey a curfew to stay in their residence during evening hours or on weekends. There are no house arrest programs where the offender must stay in their residence all the time. At any given time, there are about 20,000 clients under house arrest nationwide. Research has shown that this option works best for older, married clients with established jobs. Critics argue that it is plagued with class and race bias.
Electronic monitoring, or the use of ankle or wrist bracelets that emit a telemetry signal, is also a fairly recent invention. Initial costs are quite high, but once the system is in place, it costs as little as $3 a day to monitor a client. There are a variety of gadgets involved: continuous signal devices; pre-programmed signal devices; and devices that look like cell phones. There are about 75,000 clients under electronic monitoring nationwide. Known benefits include avoiding the criminogenic atmosphere of jails and prison.
Halfway houses have been around for a long time, and are similar to outreach missions in that they provide temporary residence and basic needs, such as food and shelter, for poorer clients. Generally, such places combine homeless people with ex-inmates who have no place to go. So-called "halfway-out" houses are more common than "halfway-in" houses. Most states are getting out of the halfway house business, and there are currently only about 15,000 clients in such programs.
Day reporting centers, also called community residential centers or community correctional centers, are offices that look like houses in residential neighborhoods where the client has to check-in sometime during daylight hours to fulfill some part of their probation conditions. Employment counseling is the most common service provided, although such places can also be used for organizing community service activities, helping work out victim restitution, and/or mediation or reconciliation activities between victims and offenders. Daily check-ins are usually required. Many day centers, like other programs in community corrections, are staffed with volunteers, who serve as tutors, mentors, advisors, or skills trainers. From time to time, scandals erupt where a client and a volunteer have gotten too close or intimate in a program. From a management perspective, it's better to use paraprofessionals (who at least have some formal training) than volunteers.
There are a vast number of other private programs. Privatization in community corrections is a significant issue. For some reason, and nobody seems to know why, private facilities have lower client recidivism rates than public facilities. It is frequently argued that private facilities screen in only the best candidates for success, a practice known as creaming, or cherry-picking.
ISSUES IN COMMUNITY CORRECTIONS
Only about 62% of probationers successfully complete their probationary period. Two thirds of probationers commit new crimes within 3 years of completing their sentence. Ex-probationers in many states are responsible for murders and countless other violent crimes, some while they were on probation. 90% of probationers are under court order to get drug treatment, to pay restitution or fines. About 50% of them, however, do not comply with these court orders. Fewer than 40% receive any kind of effective drug treatment during their sentence. Some 300,000 probationers (2%) are officially listed as 'absconders', which means, essentially, that they are out there, hiding in public view, flaunting the laws, and ignoring the system.
There are two ways to violate probation or parole: by a technical violation and by committing a new offense (often called the instant offense as opposed to the original offense). On average, all violators comprise about 50% technical violations and 50% new offense violations. A technical violation is misbehavior by an offender under supervision that is not by itself a criminal offense and generally does not result in arrest (e.g., failing to report for a scheduled office visit, missing a curfew, lack of employment or attendance at school, testing positive for drug or alcohol use, or contacting a victim or co-defendant). Serious technical violations (e.g., escape or repeated failure to report, tendencies toward violence) or substantive patterns of misbehavior can result in revocation and re-imprisonment. Some technical violators receive no sanctions and others may have their conditions modified to respond to the misbehavior, yet continue to be supervised in the community rather than sent to prison. Probation and parole officers have a range of graduated sanctions available to address technical violations from a verbal reprimand and increased reporting requirements to referrals to treatment or service programs, electronic monitoring, and re-incarceration. Conditions attached to the successful completion of probation are so stringent that many offenders prefer to choose jail or prison rather than probation.
Traditional, or straight, probation is not the only arrangement that can be made. Some jurisdictions (like North Carolina) allow the judge to enter a prayer for judgment, which means you're found guilty but if you behave for a set period of time (typically one to three years), the offense will not go on your record. Other jurisdictions used what was once called deferred prosecution, or what is more commonly called a suspended sentence. These are all descendants of a practice once known as judicial reprieve. With a suspended sentence, a conviction is recorded but no conditions are attached for supervision. The judge reserves the option of revoking the suspended sentence if they ever see that offender in their courtroom again. Other arrangements include shock probation, also known as the split sentence, where the offender spends some initial time in jail, followed by a period of probation. Shock incarceration is somewhat different in that the offender must petition the court while in jail to be released on probation. There is even a type of intermittent arrangement called shock parole, where the offender serves some jail time, some parole time, and then some more jail time.
Only about 58% of parolees successfully complete their parole period, and the figures are much worse if the convict gets out of prison the "hard way" - by doing their whole sentence behind bars. Year and year of statistics have shown that among inmates who "max out" or get out of prison the "hard way," over two-thirds (67%) of them will be re-arrested within three years. Parole used to be the normal course of events, but more and more inmates are exiting correctional facilities after serving all the time they were sentenced to. The history of parole is tied into the history of reformatories, New York's Elmira Reformatory, to be exact, in 1876, although some scholars trace its origins to 1840 when Alexander Maconochie implemented "tickets-of-leave" for inmates at Norfolk Island, a British penal colony off the coast of Australia. In America, parole evolved more by accident than design. It is defined as the release of a person from a correctional facility before they have completed their full sentence. It is a privilege rather than a right. Parolees are placed under supervision, and conditions are imposed on their behavior. Parole is usually granted by a parole board specially appointed (or elected) for the purpose of determining who would most benefit, in terms of rehabilitation, by an early release. Other times, the prison administration (correctional counselors, really) releases inmates early by calculating legislatively-approved good time credits given for good behavior while incarcerated, but this isn't really parole--it's called conditional or supervised release, or something else. Parole's the only thing left that's really representative of rehabilitation. However, the average parole officer today has a caseload of 69 parolees and averages only 1.6 face-to-face contacts per month.
Ironically, parole shouldn't even exist. It was officially abolished in 1984 according to federal sentencing guidelines released that year. Not all states followed the feds, however, in their recommendation to abolish it. Some states simply combined it (the parole board system) with their good time/early release system; others (like Virginia) passed Truth-in-Sentencing laws letting anyone out who had served at least 85 percent of their sentence. Even the feds themselves realized the importance of supervision--parole at least meant that someone was watching the releasees; good time release meant that no one was watching them--so they combined parole into their probation system, creating the job of federal probation/parole officer, one of the more attractive jobs (and well-paying too) in criminal justice. Currently, only 15 states have abolished parole, and the feds have passed all kinds of phase-out acts to prolong the lifespan of the U.S. Parole Commission.
It doesn't make sense to talk about a "parole system" in the U.S. because it's extremely disorganized. One state may have an independent parole board authority; another consolidates parole authority in a department of corrections division. Hearings are not conducted the same from state to state, and inmates may appear before the whole board or just a small part of it. There's also a lot of variation in what parole boards consider in terms of the rehabilitation potential for each inmate. Attitude appears to be all-important, and inmates have always said that disciplinary record doesn't seem to matter, just how things go that day. Nothing "cleans up" the inmate population more than the day the parole board comes to visit a prison.
Sex offender notification laws came into being in 1996 nationwide after New Jersey passed its Megan's Law in 1994. These laws require communities and schools to be notified, by bulletin, flyer, or signpost, that a paroled sex offender is within residence nearby. These laws have been frequently challenged as unconstitutional on many grounds, and everyone is awaiting the Supreme Court to take up the issue. In the meantime, however, at least 16 states go a step further than these laws, setting the maximum end of the parole period to life.
The problem of reentry is the problem that ex-inmates find in trying to re-adjust to the free community. If they have spent any length of time behind bars, they have come to see the rules of free world etiquette as upside-down. They have learned in prison, for example, that a smile when greeting someone means you are looking for trouble. Being nice or kind to anyone is a sign of weakness, and ex-inmates typically overreact to anything that threatens to put them down or make them feel hopeless. The most common reason for not being able to adjust back into society is an inability to handle all the strange, angry emotions and hassles that come up in almost every social or interpersonal encounter with people in the free community.
The rights of ex-inmates are
restricted, the theory being that they do not have the required honesty and
proper values to participate in some of the things that free people enjoy.
These restrictions vary by jurisdiction, and some places are slowly lifting
them. The following table of what is restricted in "most" and "some"
jurisdictions is about all that can be summarized:
|Rights Lost in Most Jurisdictions||Rights Lost in Some Jurisdictions|
1. to hold public office
|1. to vote
2. to obtain work in some licensed occupations
3. to own an automobile and auto insurance
4. to sue for money in civil court
5. to obtain a passport or visa
6. to apply for general assistance or welfare
Some jurisdictions allow ex-inmates to clean up their rap sheets, for example, by sealing juvenile records or making sure the same arrest or conviction does not show several times. Also in existence are forms called Certificates of Relief From Disabilities, or Certificates of Good Conduct, which indicate the person has been rehabilitated.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the United States is undergoing a reentry crisis. The American model of a reentry system lacks an adequate theory of criminogenesis (what causes people to commit crime) as well as effective principles of management (the carrot-and-stick approach characterizes most community corrections). The carrot and stick approach has turned probation and parole officers into half-cop, half-social workers. This model of punishment and welfare hasn't worked very well. It's degrading, and deficit-based. The ex-offender is not only treated suspiciously like a would-be criminal, but they are also treated like a welfare recipient. It's the worst of two possible worlds. Further, there has never been any strong tradition in American culture about when a person has "paid their debt to society." Ex-convicts often feel they have paid their debt to society and should be left alone after release, and when they 'get out,' they want to be out. Any compromise or half-measure, any 'hoops' or hassles placed in their path, breeds resentment.
There are number of things that prisoners
and ex-prisoners can do to contribute to communities. Many of these things
are already done, but not publicized widely. They need to be published
widely, and there needs to be more things that build on strengths instead of
deficits. The following table lists some of these activities:
THINGS THAT INMATES OR EX-INMATES CAN DO
|1. Build homes for low-income people (Habitat for
2. Provide respite or hospice care for people dying of AIDS and other illnesses
3. Train companion dogs for the blind and disabled
4. Plant gardens and clean-up graffiti in neighborhoods
5. Repair computers to be donated to schools
6. Fight forest fires or provide other relief services in floods and natural disasters
7. Become mentors or counselors for the alcohol- and drug-addicted
8. Become community social service helpers
Amber's Probation & Parole Site
American Probation & Parole Association
Bill Sand's 7th Step Society
Broken Windows Probation: The Next Step in Fighting Crime
Carolina Correctional Services
Center for Restorative Justice
Five Futures for Probation & Parole
Georgia Parole & Pardon Board
History of John Augustus: Father of Probation
Mark's Parole and Crime
Measuring the Performance of Community Corrections
Parole and Prisoner Reentry in the United States (pdf)
United States Parole Commission
Welcome Home: Examining the Reentry Court Concept
What Probation is like in Hunt County, Texas
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Whitehead, J. (1989). Burnout in Probation and Corrections. NY: Praeger.
Last Updated: 02/04/04
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