Did you know that one in 72 adults in the United States are on probation?

Probation and parole were supposed to fix our nation’s over-reliance on incarceration, but after nearly four decades and with 4.3 million individuals under some type of community supervision, it’s clear that something has gone wrong.

Since 1980, overwhelmed and abused community supervision programs have helped drive up incarceration in America. Thanks to technical violations and disproportionately harsh penalties, probation and parole often leads to an increased chance of an individual returning to jail or prison.

Beyond keeping individuals locked up, community supervision acts as a vampire on taxpayer dollars. With so many people under probation or parole, vital resources are diverted to wasteful programs that could be spent elsewhere. Recent data compiled across all 50 states reveals that when the terms of community supervision are longer than needed it comes at an increased cost to taxpayers of more than $9 billion annually. Where state and local governments could be investing in better safeguards to protect against violent crime and public safety threats, they are wasting taxpayer dollars and needlessly keeping Americans involved in the criminal justice system.

Making matters worse, research has shown that a large percentage of individuals get tripped up by probation or parole violations––either for a technical violation or a new offense––and end up back in the prison system. This is especially troublesome when you start to realize that a majority of non-serious community supervision violations occur within two years of sentencing, and that most serious violations happen within three years of sentencing.

But the future of community supervision isn’t all doom and gloom. California was able to reduce community supervision incarceration by 23 percent, which helped them save $1 billion over the life of the program. They were able to do this by “aligning state and county incentives towards shared goals of maintaining public safety.” North Carolina is also a bright light when it comes to this issue. They were able to put together a package of reforms which included reducing the average community supervision term by 10 percent. These changes led to a notable drop in the state’s prison population and a savings of $81 million.

Opponents of reform will always say that investing less in community supervision will lead to an increase in crime and put public safety at risk. But studies in Oregon and South Carolina found that states can shorten probation terms whilst still protecting public safety.

This is just the beginning. Much more still needs to be done across the country to reform community supervision programs and align their purpose with intended outcomes. North Carolina and California have proved that reducing community supervision term lengths and aligning state and local government goals on public safety can go a long way. With criminal justice reform popular amongst both sides of the aisle, now is the time for leaders to get to work on solutions that will not only reduce recidivism but save money as well.

Image credit: Hans-Joerg Nisch

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