Punishment Outside Prison
By LINCOLN CAPLAN
Probation and parole for convicted offenders are complex and growing problems in criminal justice. Scholars and others with the American Law Institute, meeting in Washington this week, are to present draft proposals on ways to reform laws about offenders who serve these out-of-custody sentences.
The draft recommends fewer such community-based sentences, with shorter terms and fewer conditions imposed so that supervision is better defined. When finalized, the plan will be a model for state penal codes.
In 2010, more than 2.3 million people were behind bars in the United States. More than twice that number, 4.9 million, were under probation or parole. Such sentences — imposed either for lesser offenses like shoplifting, or after release from prison for more serious offenses — are considered easy time compared with incarceration and a first step toward a fresh start. But often, that turns out to be wrong.
Increasingly, these offenders are not reintegrated into society. Often, so many conditions are imposed on their probation or parole — like not being allowed to drink alcohol after being convicted of passing a bad check — that it is easy to violate just one and end up in custody. And the consequences of community sentences even for those never imprisoned — like not being permitted to vote or to qualify for, say, a beautician’s license — make it difficult to find a job. Under a sound justice system, most offenders should do their time and get a second chance. For many, probation and parole lead to prison, not back to a normal life.