Americans are being told right now that our country has two options when it comes to delivering justice: A) institute law and order, or B) spend more on social programs. Turns out, voters actually want both.
Currently, 4.4 million people in the U.S. – 30 percent of them black – are on probation or parole. That’s about half the population of Virginia, where I live. Any one of these folks, at any time, could be sent to jail for doing something as harmless as missing a check-in with a supervising officer because they couldn’t leave work. As a result, each day in America 280,000 people are imprisoned for supervision violations.
Law and order means that there’s an order to our laws, but there’s nothing orderly about jailing someone who can’t afford to miss work. And a new survey conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of REFORM Alliance shows that voters in eight diverse states agree. These voters support changing the probation and parole systems to allow our country to maintain law and order, get tough on crime, honor victims, and invest in more programs that help rehabilitate formerly incarcerated people – all at the same time.
For example, after learning about the astronomical number of people under probation or parole supervision, majorities of voters in six out of eight states said it is important to reduce this number. This reduction was supported by voters in reliably blue New York and deep-red Georgia. After finding out that the U.S. spends $9.3 billion each year incarcerating people for violating parole or probation, a plurality of voters in all eight states said the nation needs to spend less.
Majorities of voters in all states said mentorship programs should be a hallmark of supervision. Pairing someone who’s experienced the system and successfully reentered society with someone looking to make the same transition would reduce recidivism, thereby lowering crime, saving taxpayer dollars, and producing more available job talent. Voters also agree that reinvesting tax dollars into programs aimed at solving root issues of crime – such as drug and mental health treatment – will help people reenter society more successfully while reducing incarceration.
Another key reform that appeals to voters is rewarding good behavior by people on probation and parole. Since her release from prison in 2018, Alice Johnson has become an author, speaker and leader of a non-profit. As a result of her hard work, Johnson’s probation officer recommended that she be released from supervision, but that recommendation was ignored. Had Johnson not recently received a presidential pardon that wiped her slate clean, the 65-year-old grandmother would still be monitored today.
Supervision programs like probation and parole were originally intended to be an alternative to prison, giving people the support they needed to stay out of trouble and contribute to society. But these programs have deviated away from their purpose, trapping millions of people in the justice system at a steep cost to taxpayers with little demonstrable public safety benefit.
The good news is that Americans want changes. The better news is that these ideas are politically popular, as evidenced by this groundbreaking poll. But best of all is that these reforms will reduce racial disparities in the justice system by needlessly incarcerating fewer black people and ease the burden on law enforcement by reducing supervision caseloads. Everyone benefits. So, let’s get to work.
Geoff Holtzman serves as communications director for the REFORM Alliance.