A New Standard for Community Supervision: Continue Reforms as We Reimagine the System

By JT Mullins, Institute for Responsible Citizenship Fellow

As the country entered lockdown in the spring of last year, policymakers were delayed and ineffectual with their responses to protect incarcerated individuals from the COVID-19 virus. In fact, a June 2020 report by the American Civil Liberties Union gave most state responses a grade of F, with none earning higher than a D-. As a result, people in overcrowded jails and prisons were being infected and dying at a rate many times higher than that of the general public. The disparities, renewing a call from advocates for decarceration, caused states to reduce their incarcerated populations in the interest of public health.

Yet the temporary reforms, which led systems to transition many individuals to community supervision in the form of parole or probation, simultaneously alleviate costly measures and minimize the threat of reincarceration. This development makes a case to permanentize these reforms and continue reexamining the system.

In New York, the state replaced in-person check-ins with video and telephone calls, while the Colorado Department of Corrections temporarily suspended arrests for low-level technical parole violations. The State of California repealed 23 parole and probation-related fees, including those regarding electronic monitoring programs. Community supervision officials also urged courts to reduce intake to those who absolutely needed to be supervised, as well as reduce the length of sentences to “only as long as necessary to achieve the goals of supervision”. 

Why not continue allowing virtual check-ins? Why force those under correctional control to pay numerous fines and fees, considering that they experience notably higher rates of poverty than the general public? In-person check-ins with parole officers can be both time consuming and expensive when accounting for travel, and individuals often pay for their own drug and alcohol tests, alongside other fees related to their supervision. But most importantly, why supervise people who we don’t believe need to be under supervision, and why are we extending the period of this supervision past the “necessary” length of time? Because community supervision purportedly aims toward the successful reintegration of individuals into their communities, removing these punitive measures is a step in the right direction.

The reforms implemented in community supervision during the pandemic should become standard practice, though their success demands deeper interrogation of the current system. Although the pandemic’s reforms improve the lives of those currently affected by community supervision, they do little to fundamentally alter the way this system functions. Parole and probation continue to operate in a punitive capacity, restricting individuals’ liberties in manners often wholly unrelated to their offenses and undermining their journey back to a life removed from the criminal legal system. They extend the arm of incarceration out into historically oppressed communities. Additionally, communities of color are disproportionately affected by technical parole violations, pre-trial detention, and community supervision in general. 

Improvements in the public health situation are not cause to stop prioritizing the health and wellbeing of people under incarceration. If these reforms are indeed “best practices,” as parole and probation officials claim, why not implement them all of the time?  Maintaining these reforms is a first step in the larger project of replacing community supervision with a system that actually benefits those it serves. This would include access to affordable housing, career development services, and other necessary supports. The reforms brought on by the pandemic need to serve as our baseline as we continue to imagine systems that support those impacted by the criminal legal system, instead of simply changing the location and manner of their punishment.