TRAP DOOR

Probation and Parole is often described as a trap, one foot in the door (prison) one foot out. For many offenders who can’t afford adequate counsel, probation can seem like a saving grace a second chance, a way to avoid incarceration. However, the truth about probation and parole is that it’s the leading cause of mass incarceration and greatly contributes to an overcrowded prison system. 

John Augustus is considered the founder of probation. In 1841 he voluntarily advocated on behalf of a defendant who was standing trail for public drunkenness. When the defendant returned to court “his whole appearance was changed” to the point that no one in the court, including the charging officer recognized him (1). It was clear that the defendant was rehabilitated and over the next 18 years Augustus bailed out and supervised nearly 2,000 defendants saving them from incarceration (1).

Throughout the years the rehabilitation aspect of community supervision (probation and parole) dwindled, and focus was placed on punishment. In 1970 Robert Martinson published a report titled “Martinson Report” in which he stated that there was no cure or proven formula to help people turn their lives around post-conviction. His report led to the shift from rehabilitation to punishment triggering an increase in prison and jail populations from 1972-2008.

As community supervision began to focus heavily on punishment and increasing surveillance those serving time under supervision found themselves facing harsh restrictions like ankle monitors and frivolous stipulations that led to an increase in technical violations. 

Technical violations are misbehaviors by an offender under community supervision that are “technically” not criminal or punishable by arrest but go against the stipulations outlined in terms and conditions of community supervision. Technical violations range from missed or late fees, failed urinary analysis, missed appointments, failure to complete court order treatment programs and a range of other “mishaps”. Nationally, “one quarter of the people entering U.S. prisons were locked up for technical violations” (1). In Harris County the largest county in Texas, technical violations for felony cases in 2017 were 59.10% and 73.50% for offenders under misdemeanor community supervision (2).

In addition to increases in technical violations many community supervision department budgets are often underfunded leading to overworked supervision officers who often take a lackadaisical approach to their caseloads and a reduction in quantity and quality of resources and programs used to support offenders during supervision, increases the likelihood of technical violations. 

As communities and organizations across our county demand for criminal justice reform it’s important that transforming community supervision is part of the conversations. Arnold Ventures and other prominent wealthy organizations like EXiT (Executives Transforming Probation and Parole), and Jay-Z’s Reform Alliances have invested millions into programs and research aimed at eliminating mass incarceration and reforming community supervision. In addition to those efforts, we the people can get involved in the process of transforming community supervision by voting and demanding our leaders to invest money and resources to social organizations and communities. Our society can remove the employment and housing barriers associated with having a criminal background which also contributes to technical violations. Thus, given offenders under community supervision a fair chance at rehabilitation which will empower them to successfully complete their court order community supervision.  

Written by: Norman Harris

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1. Explainer: How “Technical Violations” Drive Incarceration. Vincet Schiraldi https://theappeal.org/the-lab/explainers/explainer-how-technical-violations-drive-incarceration/

2. Harris County Strategic Plan FY 2018 – 2021. https://cscd.harriscountytx.gov/Documents/HCCSCD%20Strategic%20Plan%20Final%202018.03.26-revised.pdf 


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