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Revoking Probation

After years of working in the system, a reformer and believer in government gives up on probation and parole.

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On the last day on the job, the state makes you hand in your badge. For about two-and-a-half years, I had worked as a probation officer in the New Jersey court system, supervising people who had been convicted and sentenced up to five years to what is known as community supervision. The badge was what I wore when I visited people in their homes, at job-placement sites, and sometimes in the county jail. Under the law, the badge gave me the “powers of constables,” which I understood as less than what a police officer wields, but still a level of authority to face a judge and recommend a sentence or a revocation of probation. I had the discretion, in other words, to recommend that someone be sent to jail or state prison.

I only used that power once. I did not enjoy it. I did enjoy writing presentence investigation reports — or PSIs, for short — which a judge ordered when entering a guilty plea or verdict to better understand the person they were  about to sentence. I approached them like a journalist would: I’d interview the person, try to learn as much about their family, circumstances, and history as I could, and then corroborate details from multiple sources. Once the person’s PSI report was complete, I’d put together a narrative with a recommendation. “In lieu of incarceration, the undersigned officer recommends that the defendant serve up to five years of probation supervision,” I’d tell the judge. In the vast majority of cases, the recommendation was a term of probation.

Violations for people already under supervision were different. There, the narrative was accusatory and preceded by a summons — a charging document listing the conditions that, in my judgment, a person under my purview had violated. Whether they missed check-ins with me. Whether they tested positive for drugs. Whether they failed to make payments on their fines. Whether they completed court-ordered treatment. Whether they had  any new arrests. The narrative was a clinical, blow-by-blow account of all the times the person didn’t show up, didn’t comply, didn’t pay. None of the actual reasons for what I deemed noncompliance mattered — only that there was noncompliance.

All of us officers, to a point, had leeway to decide whether the sum of these failures merited keeping a person on probation or inflicting the pain of imprisonment. More often than not, pain was the default: “The undersigned officer recommends that the defendant’s term of probation be revoked.”

I’d like to think I made a difference. One truism about probation I internalized but never followed was that the work was “half law enforcement, half counselor.” I took this latter half way more seriously. But not everyone did; some of my colleagues were more punitive and unsparing than others. Yet all of us, whether we considered ourselves cops, counselors, or a bit of both, operated within our lawful discretion. Or so we thought. Perhaps due to my religious upbringing, I choked up during training at the judiciary’s headquarters when they showed us an old, black-and-white film about John Augustus, the so-called Father of Probation, a Boston shoemaker who is believed to have had a remarkable run keeping people out of prison. “The greatest teacher of probation died on a cross,” I remember the Augustus character saying in the film. That quote is still on my Facebook page somewhere. 

I turned in my badge more than a decade ago because I believed I could be doing more. Probation may not be prison, but the weight of a conviction was still too late and too harsh a penalty for many, robbing them of freedoms and opportunities they would miss out on for years, if not a lifetime. That much I knew: Maybe one day I could stand between a person and the prosecution as their advocate and prevent this damage from happening in the first place. Maybe if I knew the law, I could use it to help spare a few people from the violence of the criminal legal system. I was in too deep to understand that the system of mass supervision of humans I was legitimating, albeit unwittingly, was a Leviathan of its own, bigger in scope and size than mass incarceration itself. 

Turning in the badge felt good at the time. But the gesture was no more than that. Probation, in my mind, was still good — a second chance, an alternative to incarceration, a shot to prove your worth to a judge, an officer, the state. I didn’t see it as the state merely delaying other punishments, failing to keep communities safe in ways that mattered, or exerting control at a scale that no one, let alone its benevolent forebear, ever envisioned.

Knowing what I know now, one law degree and a career writing about justice and its failures later, I read with much interest Evangeline Lopoo, Vincent Schiraldi, and Timothy Ittner’s article, “How Little Supervision Can We Have?,” forthcoming in the January 2023 edition of the Annual Review of Criminology. I recognized Schiraldi’s name from my days in law school, when he was commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation, one of the many city agencies I considered interning at. Since and before that, Schiraldi has had a long career in public service and the nonprofit sector around supervision, corrections, and juvenile justice, most recently as the corrections chief under former Mayor Bill de Blasio. A reformer, Schiraldi reportedly wanted to stay on into the Adams administration, but jail guard unions had other ideas.

But the city’s loss is academia’s gain, and “Supervision,” which reads much like a white paper, finds Schiraldi and his co-authors effectively distilling decades of literature, statistics, experience, and efforts at legal reform. They conclude that probation and parole, as presently constituted, are unsustainable and must cease to exist. Merely tinkering with or shrinking these systems of mass supervision, which ensnare 3.9 million people in the U.S., won’t work. “If probation and parole are not improving public safety, are associated with higher incarceration rates, and are accompanied by negative outcomes, it is logical to ask not only why so many people are under supervision but also why it is used at all?” the authors ponder. They “advocate a step beyond downsizing: that abolishment of probation and parole be considered, carefully attempted, and researched. Furthermore, [we] suggest the savings from such a change be reinvested in communities to improve neighborhood cohesion and bolster informal supports.”

That bottom line surprised me, in part because Schiraldi, who has been at the helm of the very institutions he’s now questioning, strikes me as the quintessential believer in the power of government working as it should. Throughout the paper, there are citations to his own academic work, to reforms he implemented as commissioner of probation, even to events he experienced while in city leadership — such as the time he witnessed a woman ask a judge to terminate her term of probation because she was unable to find childcare during her required check-ins, which she had to miss because the probation office didn’t allow children on the premises. The office where I worked had that same policy, which I understood existed for the children’s protection: To spare them the unnecessary trauma of seeing mom or dad being taken into custody right there and then, due to an outstanding warrant, a positive drug test, or some other exigency.

Simply writing that sentence gives me pause, like so many  other practices and protocols I was made to follow gave me pause. Do I really have to answer calls from ICE and tell them when a person I’m supervising is reporting, so they can grab them at the door? Why even put people and their families through all that harm? Things don’t have to be this way. And as the paper shows in one section on case studies, there have been attempts to reform probation and parole to make it less bloated, more effective, and not nearly as punitive as it is in many places. Merely reporting by kiosk or phone, which Schiraldi expanded in New York City but wasn’t allowed in my jurisdiction, for example, can appreciably reduce a person’s likelihood of noncompliance and incarceration.

In the case studies section in “Supervision,” California and New York City each get honorable mentions. Schiraldi and his co-authors explore how these liberal-leaning jurisdictions have significantly reduced their reliance on supervision. Each reduced their caseloads by different means: California through litigation and legislation, New York through changes to culture and practices, driven largely by city leadership, vigorous outside advocacy, and increased spending on social services. The city, understandably, gets the lion’s share of Schiraldi’s plaudits. “Significant shifts in funds from supervision and incarceration to communities are necessary, and less-affluent jurisdictions would require creativity and political courage to replicate New York’s success,” the authors write. (According to the paper, the city’s probation population declined 86% since peaking in 2000, going from 82,342 to 11,531 in 2021. The state of New Jersey, on the other hand, which is roughly as populous as New York City, supervises 112,500 people as of 2020.)

From my vantage point, perhaps the most significant contribution of “Supervision,” besides its bold, abolition-focused conclusion and recommendations, is a hypertechnical regression analysis where the authors show how the massive growth of supervision in all 50 states over the past 40 years did next to nothing to reduce the likelihood of incarceration, let alone improve our traditional notions of public safety. And if a carceral practice isn’t even serving its stated goals, then what are we doing here? As Schiraldi and his co-authors put it, the evidence strongly suggests that supervision instead serves “as a net-widener and trip wire back into incarceration” — a far cry from the noble Augustus ideal of helping people avoid prison and a life of misery.

I don’t know if Schiraldi is an abolitionist in the sense of wishing to end our reliance on any and all forms of carceral practices and control. But maybe overseeing the hell on earth that is Rikers broke him. Advocates for decarceration certainly were hard on him. Or maybe there’s a limit to how much human suffering a believer in government can witness before realizing that mere reforms won’t ease the pain. “Although abolition should not be entered into cavalierly,” he and his co-authors write, “a carefully planned and implemented withdrawal and reinvestment in neighborhood-driven services, supports, and opportunities for those who would otherwise be supervised is, in our view, worth trying, especially given the lackluster record of probation and parole.” Here’s a reformer, giving up on reformism: “Overhauls of this type remind us not how much there is to lose but rather how much there is to gain from watershed, rather than incremental, reforms.” 

As for me, “Supervision” reminded me that turning in my badge was only a formality. The real work of standing up for others and helping to set them free from systems of oppression is continual, communal, and requires far more than individual gestures.

Image: John Thomas/Unsplash