Toward Healing-Centered Community Supervision

By JT Mullins and Duy Pham

Although he didn’t know it at the time, John Augustus’ visit to a police court in 1841 would mark the beginning of his career as the nation’s first probation officer. Augustus bailed out a “common drunkard,” promising to invest his own time and resources into the man’s rehabilitation. Three weeks later, he returned with a man whose demeanor and appearance had noticeably improved. The court, surprised and impressed, allowed the man to walk free.

Over the next eighteen years, Augustus would provide bail for 1,946 men and women, only 10 of whom forfeited their bond. This constituted a recidivism rate of 0.5 percent, an incredible figure when compared to today’s community supervision recidivism rates (which sit between 40 percent and 60 percent). His pioneering work earned him the title of the “Father of Probation,” and it would inspire the formation of community supervision programs nationwide.

The next century would see the implementation of probation laws in all states. Progressive Era advocates pushed for a “medical model,” which would focus attention and resources on the person, not their offense. The model would consider a person’s environment and psychology in designing their treatment, recognizing the shaping effect that these factors can have on a person’s development and actions. Probation officers were trained as social workers, working with the person under their supervision to ensure their successful community integration. They were supervisors and helpers, not law enforcement.

Unfortunately, fueled by systemic racism, the latter half of the twentieth century would bring the War on Drugs, “tough on crime” attitudes, and the era of mass incarceration leading to a reversal among the rehabilitative tenants of community supervision. The 1984 Sentencing Reform Act abolished federal parole, while dramatically altering the role of federal probation officers. They now had to gather and present evidence that would match a defendant’s sentence to the offenses charged, rather than matching the sentence to each defendant’s needs. In other words, probation officers no longer behaved as social workers working with people under their supervision. Instead, they became informants for the court against these same people. Once allies, they have now become adversaries.

Today, community supervision continues to serve in a punitive capacity toward those under its control, rather than assisting them in meeting their basic needs. The 1984 Sentencing Reform Act was just one piece in the well-documented project of mass incarceration targeted toward Black and brown Americans, with its mandatory minimum sentences ensuring that people would be incarcerated for longer periods of time. Communities of color continue to be disproportionately affected by community supervision, with Black adults 3.5 times as likely to be under community supervision than white adults. Therefore, any attempt at combating structural racism within the criminal legal system must include a transformation of community supervision.

As we look to create a system that successfully supports people to return to their communities, we should draw inspiration from the healing-centered ideals advanced nearly a century ago. Community supervision should be an opportunity to support those targeted by our racist criminal legal system in achieving economic opportunity. Probation and parole should be proactive in connecting individuals to quality employment and educational opportunities, as well as wrap-around supports such as housing, health and mental health care, and food and nutrition supports.

Reimagining community supervision requires us to end its punitive nature and recognize the humanity of those impacted by the criminal legal system. Because of racism and systemic divestment of communities of color, community supervision may be the first time a person has an opportunity to be connected to supportive programs and build a future toward economic opportunity. We must make transformative investments and policy changes within community supervision with a goal of promoting success, rather than fostering a system that is complicit with mass incarceration.