The rapid spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons is a public health emergency. Even as COVID cases plateau in some states, they continue to rise in prisons. Now more than ever, we need to rethink community supervision, which is responsible for driving nearly half of all people into state prisons.
Here are 5 reasons why changing supervision policies — and most importantly, reducing the number of people on probation and parole in the first place — is more urgent than ever.
#1 Probation and parole funnel people into jails and prisons; we need to reverse this flow to reduce the number of people exposed to the virus in correctional facilities.
- Today, nearly 4.5 million people (1 in 55 U.S. adults) are under correctional control in the community — nearly twice as many as in jail or prison.
- Probation and parole have become catalysts rather than disrupters of incarceration. Nearly half of state prison admissions (45 percent) are due to supervision violations, and more than half of these are for technical violations — such as missing a meeting or failing a drug test — that do not involve a new crime.
- Correctional facilities have become hotbeds for the virus, with the five largest known outbreaks occurring in jails or prisons. Nationwide, the known infection rate for people behind bars is 2.5 times higher than the general population.
#2 Continued supervision unnecessarily risks the health of millions of people — those serving probation or parole terms, community corrections staff, all of their families, and communities at-large.
- The community supervision population disproportionately suffers from the types of pre-existing health conditions that increase fatality rates from COVID-19. People on supervision with hypertension, diabetes, respiratory illnesses, HIV, and many other chronic conditions are medically vulnerable to the virus and higher risk for serious illness or death.
- The majority of people on supervision successfully complete their sentence, and most have been convicted of minor offenses in the first place. In fact, more than three-quarters (78 percent) of the population was convicted of a nonviolent offense and at least 4 in 10 are being supervised for a misdemeanor rather than a felony conviction.
- History has shown that states can safely reduce the supervision population. Between 2007 and 2016, 37 states experienced declines in both supervision and crime rates. Policies that create alternatives to arrest and conviction, reduce supervision terms, and provide opportunities for people to earn time off their sentence should be adopted immediately.
#3 Standard supervision practices are a barrier to success for many people, and eliminating these conditions is good for public health and public safety.
- It can be impossible to comply with many standard supervision practices such as in-person reporting, home visits, frequent drug testing, and stringent work requirements while maintaining social distancing and other public health requirements.
- At the same time, research has shown that excessive supervision rules are not needed for public safety and can be counterproductive by making it difficult for people on probation and parole to keep a job, maintain stable housing, participate in treatment, or fulfill family obligations.
- Much like jails and prisons, community corrections offices are chronically understaffed, making it difficult to adequately sanitize the facilities to prevent viral transmission. In March, a group of leading current and former executives of community supervision agencies recommended limiting office visits for people on parole and probation to avoid travel on public transportation and congregating in waiting rooms where the virus may spread.
#4 Onerous fines and fees exacerbate racial disparities and increase the burden already faced by communities struggling with high unemployment and other economic hardships.
- With monthly supervisions fees ranging from $10 to $150, a person on probation for five years could pay as much as $9,000 in supervision fees alone over the course of their sentence. Supervision fees and related court costs contribute significantly to court-related debt, which disproportionately affects people of color and low-income communities.
- These same communities suffer the most from high rates of correctional control and over-supervision. Black people are about 3.5 times as likely as white people to be on probation or parole and account for nearly one-third of the supervision population even though they make up just 13 percent of the population overall.
- Communities of color have also disproportionately felt the impact of COVID-19. Death rates in New York City have been twice as high for Black people as white people, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attributes to a wide range of factors including health disparities, working conditions, and over-representation in correctional populations.
#5 State and local governments will be facing severe revenue shortfalls, and corrections agencies must be ready for cuts to already stretched thin budgets.
- Taxpayers spend $9.3 billion to imprison people for violations of supervision every year, and nearly $3 billion on prison costs for technical violations alone. As states are forced to find budget savings, eliminating revocations and incarceration for rules violations is an obvious place to start.
- While rates of substance use, misuse, and dependence are two to three times higher for people on probation and parole, fewer than half receive treatment while on supervision. This large treatment gap limits the effectiveness of supervision and scarce budget dollars should be focused on improving access to behavioral health programs.
- With inevitable budget cuts, supervision agencies should eliminate supervision for anyone who is identified as low risk and focus on supporting people who are reintegrating from jail and prison. With record unemployment and an unprecedented job market, supporting these individuals in the community and making sure they have access to safe housing and basic necessities should be the priority for the foreseeable future.