What’s Gone Wrong

Under the incarceration-focused solution, societies were safer to the extent that dangerous people were incapacitated, but when offenders emerged from prison – with no job prospects, unresolved drug and mental health problems, and diminished connections to their families and communities – they were prone to return to crime.

While the growth of incarceration took many dangerous offenders off the streets, research suggested that it reached a point of diminishing returns, as recidivism rates increased and more than one million nonviolent offenders filled the nation’s prisons. In most states, prisons came to absorb more than 85 percent of the corrections budget, leaving limited resources for community supervision alternatives such as probation and parole, which cost less and could have better reduced recidivism among non-violent offenders.

Illustrating the failure of the entire corrections system, two-thirds of individuals now entering prison are offenders whose probation or parole was revoked, and half of these revocations are for technical violations such as not reporting to a probation officer, rather than for new crimes.  Parole and probation reporting are critical elements of community supervision, but it is worth asking whether re-incarceration is a sensible sanction for such violations.