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Too big to succeed: The impact of the growth of community corrections and what should be done about it

The recent sentencing of Philadelphia rap artist Meek Mill to two to four years in prison for probation violations committed a decade after his original offense has brought the subject of America’s expansive community supervision apparatus and its contribution to mass incarceration into the public spotlight (NBC News 2017; Jay-Z 2017).

Founded as either an up-front diversion from incarceration (probation) or a back-end release valve to prison crowding (parole), community corrections in America has grown far beyond what its founders could have imagined with a profound, unintended impact on incarceration. With nearly five million adults under community corrections supervision in America (more than double the number in prison and jail), probation and parole have become a substantial contributor to our nation’s mass incarceration dilemma as well as a deprivation of liberty in their own right (Kaeble and Bonczar 2016; Kaeble and Glaze 2016). The almost fourfold expansion of community corrections since 1980 without a concomitant increase in resources has strained many of the nation’s thousands of community supervision departments, rendering some of them too big to succeed, often unnecessarily depriving clients of their liberty without improving public safety (Bureau of Justice Statistics 1995; Kaeble and Bonczar 2016; Pew Center on the States 2009; Klingele 2013; Doherty 2016).

This paper offers a way out of “mass supervision.” Authored by leading representatives of our nation’s community corrections field, our conclusion is that the number of people on probation and parole nationally can be cut in half over the next decade and returns to incarceration curbed, with savings focused on providing services for those remaining under supervision. This would reduce unnecessary incarceration and supervision, increase the system’s legitimacy, and enhance public safety by allowing probation, parole and community programming to be focused on those more in need of supervision and support.

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