Incarceration Nation: Even After Prison Many Americans are Held Captive

Did you realize that there are more Americans on parole or probation than are held within the prison system? Yep, it’s hard to fathom but 1 in 58 American adults – about 4.4 million citizens – are currently under some sort of community supervision.

Do they all need to be? Doubtful. And the status quo is costing taxpayers billions every single year.

There have been a gazillion words written about prison reform, relaxation of stiff sentences and reduced incarceration rates but there has been much less said about a larger part of our corrections system that costs you, the taxpayer, some $9.3 billion each year. That’s the latest estimate of how much money is spent locking up people for violating their parole or probation.

The Pew Trust Organization has studied the system and concludes more could be done to safely reduce the number of those under supervision.

This is the Difference

Pew’s research indicates those entering parole are most likely to reoffend in the first weeks on the outside. The chance that they will reoffend falls dramatically after the first year. Among those on probation, recidivism occurs most often within the first 10 to 18 months. So why is it routine to keep this portion of the corrections population under scrutiny for so long?

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports the average probation can last as long as nearly five years in Hawaii, more than 4 years in New Jersey, about 3 ½ years in Arizona, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama, Rhode Island and New York. Some critics believe the system is deliberately set up to self-perpetuate, to keep the offender under supervision as long as possible to justify the need for the system.

Adam Gelb, director of the Council on Criminal Justice says, “This has been the dirty little secret of the system for decades. Funneling parolees or probationers back into lock-up, he says, is “a huge driver of prison populations and costs.”

And once under the system the complexity of the rules make many offenders feel as if they are being set up for failure.

Offenders Who Don’t Follow Rules Risk Another Lockup

Look, sometimes a parolee or probationer commits another crime and for the public’s safety they need to be locked up again. But a nationwide study by the Council of State Governments (CSG) shows a full 45% of the re-incarcerated simply violated a rule. They may have botched some paperwork, forgot a curfew, or missed a drug test because the bus to the lab was late.

The CSG’s report estimates nearly $3 billion could be saved each year if the system was focused more on helping offenders ease back into lawful society rather than meting out punishments for breaking one of their rigid rules.

The supervised person must regularly report to an officer, submit to frequent blood/urine tests, they must get permission for where they can live, work and travel. They must have pre-approval of their friends and any major purchase. They must not be detained by law enforcement for any reason or be found to have anything that could be construed to be a weapon. One recent report mentioned a parolee who was sanctioned after forgetting to return a steak knife to the kitchen after eating dinner at the living room TV. Outside the kitchen the knife is considered to be a weapon.

Break any of the rules and it could mean automatic re-incarceration. As the CSG report stated, “Probation and parole are designed to lower prison populations and help people succeed in the community,” but their data shows the system is, “having the opposite effect.”

Imagine trying to establish a whole new life. It is a monumental task, especially for a convict who may have been incarcerated for decades. They have done their time and earned the right to freedom but freedom for them is not what the rest of us enjoy. Individuals on supervision will tell you they get up every morning feeling like the deck is stacked against them.

There has been a shift of attitude in several states lately. Some probation and parole officers are now adopting ways to reward ex-offenders for their positive behavior rather than officiously focusing only on that punitive list of strict conditions. In other words, they are offering a helping hand up – rather than a thumb pushing down.

Let’s hope that trend continues.



  1. Diane Dimond on July 12, 2021 at 8:10 am

    Gerald Madrid writes:

    Hi Diane

    A good piece today from you in the Albuquerque Journal. It does bring up a valid point as to how long and how many offenders are on probation and or parole.. I agree that 4 or 5 years is a long time to be “supervised”..Not many of us could go that long without messing up or breaking the rules in one way or another..

    However, to the bigger point, and if I may quote you ” some critics believe the system is deliberately set up to self-perpetuate, to keep the offenders under supervision as long as possible to justify the need for the system”. That is exactly what I have been saying about pre-trial services programs that are popping up all over the country . These programs claim to be supervising all the offenders that judges are releasing from county jails ROR . The quick release from jail coupled with the PTS supervision we are told is what is keeping us “safe”.

    I can tell you from firsthand knowledge, that if this combination is working and is the answer to our crime problem ( especially in New Mexico) then someone forgot to point this out to the Judges and the N.M. Supreme court. Crime ,especially is at an all-time high here and it is all happening since bail bond agents were eliminated from the judicial system and under the “supervision” of pre-trial services agencies. PTS officers get to recommend that offenders be put on PTS supervision, even though the person has already failed to appear in court and failed to comply with conditions of release.
    Sounds to me like a little self-perpetuation going on here ..

    Gerald A. Madrid

  2. Diane Dimond on July 12, 2021 at 8:12 am


    Can’t or don’t want to do the time then don’t do the crime.

  3. Diane Dimond on July 12, 2021 at 8:13 am

    Lois Consiglio writes:

    This is a bunch of horse droppings.
    Probation and parole are a privilege extended to CONVICTED criminals allowing then to serve their sentences outside the walls of a prison.
    Requiring them to follow a few rules is a very, very small ask.
    If they can’t follow the rules it’s a very good indication they are just as unable to not commit more crimes and they do belong in prison.
    Do I feel sorry for someone who is having trouble abiding by the conditions of their parole/probation, conditions they agreed to.
    HELL NO, the only thing they are being set up for is learning how to live life between the lines.

  4. Diane Dimond on July 12, 2021 at 8:14 am

    Santos Alvarez writes:

    Two tiered justice system, that’s where a lot of the BS is.
    Like no innocent person has ever been convicted of a crime, wrong. This system is better than most in the world but some people in it are just assholes that want you to stay in it, It’s a paycheck. Even after they get out good luck getting a decent job. If you don’t know, don’t talk about it. It’s not easy for them in or out but depending on the crime is how it should be determine your fate. Problem is, once a felon your Fu”#$@% cause others just see you as permanently guilty no matter how hard you try or behave.

  5. Diane Dimond on July 12, 2021 at 8:14 am

    Sonia Tolson writes:

    I worked in IPS probation & I agree with this article whole-heartedly.

  6. Diane Dimond on July 12, 2021 at 8:16 am

    flmaxey writes:

    I had a stepbrother who sent a good number of years in jail. His own policy was, “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime”.
    It’s pointless to analyze the incarceration system, which is supposed to be “punishment”, by talking about how onerous it is. There’s zero logic in that argument.
    Further parole is forced on no one. The conditions for parole are agreed to by the inmate who could, just as easily, serve out their remaining sentence.
    What we should be looking at is why no one is truly afraid of going to prison which is a significant factor that leads to crime (lack of fear).
    Perhaps that lack of fear is the result of the excellent chance that criminals may get off in the court of law, a sort of “get out of jail free lottery”, and prison facilities that could be called “Club Fed”.
    My stepbrother once described prison as “a college campus without any women running around”. (Note: He didn’t use the word “women” in that description.)
    I have little sympathy for those who break the law. My sympathies lay with crime victims and those who are forced to pay the bills for providing public housing, food, board and medical for those who are, supposedly, “paying their debt to society”. They are, in fact, running up the bill.

    • Diane Dimond on July 12, 2021 at 8:16 am

      Nick Granite replies to Flmaxey:

      I disagree that no one fears going to prison. I fear going to prison and having to listen to rap music 24⁄7.

  7. Diane Dimond on July 12, 2021 at 8:17 am

    Tim Rooney writes:

    We need Prison reform but not relaxing penalties for breaking the law.
    Drug users need rehab. Violent people should be separate from everyone else.
    Teaching life skills for after being in Prison, such as communication skills, dealing with conflict, critical thinking, life skills basic things.
    These things should also be taught in schools.
    Also help make it easier for people with a Felony to get employment and a place to life otherwise they will resort back to crime and back in Prison.

    • Vic Alvarez on July 14, 2021 at 3:15 pm

      Totally agree with Tim Rooney’s response.

  8. Diane Dimond on July 12, 2021 at 8:18 am

    Nick Granite writes:

    It’s another part of the prison industry system. No more parole. Amend sentences going forward to their proper length and people do their time and they’re done.
    No more locking up again for non-crimes i.e. being late or not looking for enough jobs or whatever.
    Do that and you just did away with every parole officer in the country

  9. Diane Dimond on July 12, 2021 at 8:19 am

    Enchantress writes:

    So many judgmental people here. Amazing that the majority will probably say they are devout Christians as well.
    If you don’t know, don’t talk. With all these privatized prisons, the justice system is now specifically set up for failure and literally depends on recidivism to function as a business model. Each prisoner equals a full bed, a full bed equals funding. They want to keep the beds full. They have lobbyists that push for harsher sentencing for even minor crimes. These lobbyists donate to politician’s campaigns to get these changes.
    If you think a person should be reincarnated because he forgot to put his steak knife back in the kitchen and it was found during a surprise parole inspection, you’re a jackass. Many of these rule infractions are minor. They’re set up this way purposely to keep the funding gravy train flowing.
    It’s next to impossible to find decent employment as a convicted felon. This is also by design. The harder it is to find decent legal employment, the more ex cons are pushed back over to illegal methods… soon to fill a bed and produce more funding.
    The entire system is a money scam and the majority of the US seems to be just fine with it taking away people’s lives long after they’ve paid their debt to society.
    Another thing I find amusing— those of you in the comments saying these prisoners deserve to be there and especially the person who said “ONCE A CRIMINAL, ALWAYS A CRIMINAL”..
    You’re the same ones crying foul on the stories about the prisoners being held without bail from 1⁄6. I hate to break it to you, but their minor crimes are still crimes. They deserve fair treatment
    It’s a bit ridiculous that you’re outraged over their treatment and say everyone else in prison deserves whatever happens to them.
    Newsflash— LOTS OF PRISONERS ARE HELD IN SOLITARY. Some for punishment, some for their own safety, some because of their own violent tendencies. There are thousands in solitary right now. There are thousands of people being held at a bail they cannot make or without bail for non violent offenses.
    Everyone deserves fair treatment. I’m against a two tier justice system – regardless of who it benefits!

  10. Diane Dimond on July 12, 2021 at 8:21 am

    dadwesolek writes:

    Take that 9.8 billion plus all that covid money build prisons get rid of parole completely nuff said

  11. Diane Dimond on July 12, 2021 at 8:21 am

    Paul Fogt writes:

    While I don’t think putting someone in prison should be the only option if there is no punishment for criminal acts, crime will only get worse. Save prison for those who are just to dangerous to live in the free world, but crime must have consequences that will be a deterrent to others.

  12. Diane Dimond on July 12, 2021 at 8:21 am

    caclegal writes:

    Make them serve their full terms and they don’t have to worry about parole. If we need more prisons, build them. Certainly some of that infrastructure money would be better spent on prisons than on the dems social wishlist.

  13. Diane Dimond on July 13, 2021 at 1:22 pm

    Roger Buswell writes:

    Article doesn’t make any distinction between violent crime and all other crimes. A high level of oversight for violent offenders makes more sense than the rest. In 2019 (latest stat) there were about 7 million crimes and 1.3 million violent crimes. That’s about 18.6% violent. In theory, that would cut costs of parole by about 82% if the focus was on violent perps.

  14. Diane Dimond on July 13, 2021 at 1:23 pm

    Quasiacehi writes:

    Probation forces ex inmates to work minimum wage jobs to fill slots in businesses that would not be able to fill those positions. Why? Because probation forbids leaving town, and forces them to work or go back to jail! So in order to fill the need for bodies,for example, for special short term events, a ready supply of forced labor at the lowest wages (if they actually even get paid – by sham businesses), is supplied by the DOC. (department of corrections). And these types of events only happen a few times a year. So if inmates get a job while on probation – how do they fill positions for events??? Simple…the court system jacks up the charges for every prosecution, so that the inmate can’t afford to gamble on getting a fair trial, and so takes the offered DEAL – a PLEA BARGAIN – that includes probation…a guaranteed over abundance of cheap labor – FOR YEARS! Soooo, Will YOUR kids work for minimum wage if they don’t HAVE TO?…Or will the ex con be forced to because there is nothing else to keep him out of prison…PROBATION IS A SLUSH FUND OF THE CHEAPEST LABORERS MONEY CAN BUY…

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