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Q&A

Leaders on the Front Lines of Probation and Parole Propose an Exit From a Broken Status Quo

Vincent Schiraldi is founder of a new group of national probation department leaders that aims to reform community supervision nationwide.

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Probation and parole were invented in the 19th century as alternatives to prison. Today, however, they too often function as traps that keep people entangled with the criminal justice system, sending them back behind bars for mere technical violations like missing an appointment with a probation officer or failing a drug test, and contributing to mass incarceration. With 4.5 million Americans currently on probation or parole — more than double the number of people in prison — momentum is growing for major reforms to the system. EXiT: Executives Transforming Probation and Parole, a group of national probation department leaders, was created to promote those reforms nationwide

We discussed the new group with one of its founders, Vincent Schiraldi, who has served as commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation and senior adviser to the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. He’s currently a senior research scientist at Columbia University’s School of Social Work. 

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Arnold Ventures

Why did you decide to start EXiT?

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Vincent Schiraldi

For a while now I’ve been going to conferences and meeting with chiefs of probation from different states, and it really became apparent that a lot of the people running these systems are offended by what’s happened to them over the years. Probation and parole have dramatically changed, and they’ve changed in the lifetime of some people who are still in the field. They used to be much more rehabilitation-focused.

When we ran into the war on drugs and the war on crime, rehabilitation became a dirty word. “Nothing works” became the mantra. So probation and parole departments pivoted. People started wearing flak jackets and carrying guns, and we redubbed ourselves “community corrections.” EXiT is about allowing the field to have a public voice in saying that mass supervision needs to end. We need to have a system that’s much more helpful and hopeful, and less focused on surveillance and punishment.

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Arnold Ventures

There are 4.5 million people on probation or parole in America right now — almost double the number of people in prison. Why does mass supervision receive so much less attention than mass incarceration?

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Vincent Schiraldi

A lot of people consider probation a slap on the wrist. They don’t get how onerous it is. It’s easy for most people to imagine the abuses that take place in prison. It’s less easy to imagine the abuses that take place with probation. Probation is what most white, middle-class people want to get instead of prison. They don’t understand how easy it is to get sent back to prison on a technical violation, like missing an appointment with a probation officer or failing a drug test. Then there are community supervision fees that are very onerous. That’s why one in four people entering prison is entering for a technical violation of probation or parole.

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Arnold Ventures

You say that a lot of the probation chiefs are unhappy with the current system. So what keeps it going?

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Vincent Schiraldi

The punitive model developed in the 1980s and ’90s out of animus. We wanted to lock people up. We were damn mad at them and we wanted them to suffer. That’s not what it’s about anymore. With mass supervision, it’s more about the banality of evil. It’s a weed in the yard growing untended because nobody’s paying attention to it. It doesn’t excite the advocacy community, and until recently it hasn’t excited the philanthropic community. The biggest reason that tomorrow there will be 4.5 million people on probation or parole is that there were 4.5 million people on probation or parole today. It just keeps going because of inertia.

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Arnold Ventures

What are some of the concrete reforms EXiT is advocating?

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Vincent Schiraldi

They fall into three main categories: return probation and parole to their original purpose, right-size the number of people on probation and parole, and restore the hope. In terms of returning probation and parole to their original purpose, there are currently all these conditions of probation and parole that people have to meet. They are standard conditions that don’t have anything to do with the offense. So you have people testing positive for marijuana and getting revoked who never had a drug problem. If someone gets arrested for shoplifting, not for smoking marijuana, why require a drug test?

Then you have not associating with people who have felony convictions — that’s one of my least favorite conditions. It sounds reasonable. But today, one in three black men have a felony conviction. The most recent data we have says that one in 12 black men are under community supervision. So how are the one in 12 black men in community supervision not going to associate with the one in three black men with a felony conviction? That means that probation officers can violate almost any black man on their caseload pretty much any time they want.

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Arnold Ventures

Why is it so important to “right-size” the population of people on probation and parole?

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Vincent Schiraldi

The system was never meant to supervise 4.5 million people. There are 296,000 people on probation or parole in Pennsylvania alone. That’s as big as Pittsburgh. I can tell you for a fact that the probation and parole departments of Pennsylvania are ill-equipped to supervise Pittsburgh. People should not be on probation if they don’t need to be on it. If people need to pay restitution, have them pay restitution — you don’t need to be on probation for that.

We should also incentivize good behavior by offering people time off their probation or parole. Probation and parole officers don’t have a lot of incentives to hand out. There are a lot of punishments but not a lot of incentives. If we right-size the number of people under supervision, we can save money and redirect it toward things that help people restart their lives outside prison, like housing, job training, drug treatment.

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Arnold Ventures

Do you sense an appetite for that kind of change among the probation and parole officers you speak with?

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Vincent Schiraldi

Some yes, some no. The 60 probation and parole leaders who signed onto EXiT, they’re a yes. Many EXiT members have been leading exactly these kids of changes in their departments for years, particularly EXiT Co-Chair Barbara Broderick, Chief Probation Officer in Maricopa County, Arizona.

Just like any other system, there are going to be people who took the job because they want to go through people’s underwear drawers and handcuff them. I don’t think that’s most people. My experience in New York is that POs didn’t want to do harm to people, by and large, but they felt overwhelmed. It’s a very stressful job. I remember one PO saying that what they practiced was “fear probation.” They revoked a lot of people not because they needed to be revoked but because they were afraid that if they took a chance and went easy on them they would get in trouble. That is not atypical. There are a lot of people going to prison for technical violations, not because the person filling out the violation thinks it’s a good way to protect the public safety, but because they’re afraid of the ramifications of taking a chance. They don’t want to lose their jobs.

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Arnold Ventures

When you say you want to return probation and parole to their original purpose, what do you mean?

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Vincent Schiraldi

Probation and parole were invented in the 1840s — probation in the U.S., parole in France and Australia almost simultaneously. The U.S. version of parole started in the 1870s. And the idea was unabashedly merciful and rehabilitative — they weren’t ashamed to say those words in the 19th century. That pretty much is the mission of both probation and parole until the 1970s, when Richard Nixon declares war on drugs and the Martinson Report is released saying that nothing works when it comes to rehabilitating people. Rehabilitation becomes a dirty word. Departments of probation and parole got even more risk-averse following things like the Willie Horton scandal.

EXiT’s view of probation and parole is that we should shrink it to only the people who need to be on it. And make it meaningful again — make it about hope and rehabilitation, not despair.