What the end of Roe v. Wade will mean for people on probation and parole
On any given day in the U.S., 666,413 women are on probation or parole.
With several states preparing to criminalize abortion now that Roe v. Wade is over, and some states talking about criminalizing traveling out of state to get an abortion, it’s worth remembering that for many people on probation and parole, traveling out of state for abortion care is already next to impossible. On any given day in the U.S., 666,413 women1 are on probation (a community-based alternative to incarceration) or parole (the part of a prison sentence that someone serves in the community). In many jurisdictions — for instance, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Idaho, Texas, and the federal system, as well as some juvenile probation systems — it’s common for people on probation and parole to face restrictions on where they can travel, whether they can move to another county or state, and with whom they can “associate” (including, potentially, people who assist in coordinating abortion access, where such help is criminalized). All of these restrictions will make it harder for people under supervision to get abortion care.
In the last few days, many news outlets have reported on how people in prison can be blocked from seeking an abortion, especially in states where abortion is already illegal. (Ironically, as we’ve discussed before, prisons deny people quality pregnancy care even as they deny abortion access.) The end of Roe v. Wade will create new barriers to abortion care for incarcerated people, since it will likely trigger the criminalization of abortion in thirteen states.
But an even greater number of people on probation and parole stand to be affected: About 231,000 women are in prison or jail on any given day, but several times as many women are on probation and parole, the result of gendered differences in offense types: women are more likely than men to be serving sentences for lower-level property and drug crimes
In the thirteen states with abortion ban “trigger laws” on the way, more than 200,000 women are under probation and parole supervision, which will make it difficult or impossible for many of them to travel out of state for an abortion, or potentially even talk to people coordinating abortion care, given the typical restrictions of probation and parole.
Nationwide, the average probation term is just under two years — far too long for the average individual to “wait it out” until they are no longer under supervision and can seek abortion care across state lines. Meanwhile, parole sentences can be several months to years — typically, up to the remaining time on an individual’s sentence after they are released from prison. Some people are even subject to lifetime supervision, depending on the state and the underlying offense.
A number of probation and parole “conditions” curtail the freedoms of people on supervision: Even though breaking these rules would not be a “crime” in any other context, parole or probation officers are empowered to — and often do — send people back to jail or prison for these noncriminal “technical” violations. (In 2020, at least 67,894 people on probation and 45,878 people on parole went to prison or jail because of a noncriminal violation.) Conditions of supervision can be extremely burdensome, and they fall on people who are already disadvantaged, struggling with unemployment, poverty, and housing insecurity. As we explored in a previous report, conditions of supervision can force people to accept a bad deal in the job market. In the same way, travel restrictions — which are “standard” conditions in many places — will soon force many of these individuals to accept the impossibility of getting an abortion.
People on probation and parole typically have some options for interstate travel, but they have to get formal approval from their supervision officer in order to make specific trips. With the sole authority to approve or deny a trip across state lines for abortion care, a probation or parole officer might choose to prioritize their own personal beliefs about abortion over the desires of the individual under their control. They might also choose to delay the decision until it’s no longer possible — or safe — for the individual they’re supervising to terminate a pregnancy.
These restrictions on travel aren’t the only barriers that might stop someone from getting, or seeking, an abortion. People on probation and parole have low average incomes, and they’re often under-insured: Going to prison usually results in losing one’s health insurance coverage, meaning that formerly incarcerated people face an uphill battle to regain health insurance after their release. They may also struggle to get the time off work necessary to have an abortion — especially since maintaining steady employment is often itself a condition of supervision.
For people on supervision considering moving out-of-state to avoid their own state’s abortion laws, transfer is possible, but not guaranteed, and it’s often very slow: getting the new state to approve the transfer can take six weeks, and that’s in addition to however long the “sending” state takes to review the application. Even then, applicants will need to show their family and/or employment connections to the new state; even if they have the funds, they can’t just move on a whim.
As many others have already noted over the last few days, the growing criminalization of abortion won’t impact everyone equally. The abortions that these new post-Roe laws prevent will disproportionately be among people who are poor and lack access to transportation across state lines. People on probation and parole are a key segment of this demographic. Far too many individuals, having been swept into the criminal legal system by laws that criminalize poverty, will now find themselves without recourse for accessing what should be basic healthcare.
Estimates based on 2020 data. The Bureau of Justice Statistics’s report Probation and Parole in the United States, 2020 mentions that there are 3,053,700 people on probation and 862,100 people on parole as of December 31, 2020, and notes that about 19% of people on probation and 10% of people on parole are women, so we estimate that there are 580,203 women on probation and 86,210 women on parole. ↩
These data are from 2016. While more recent (2020) state-level probation and parole data have been published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2016 is the most recent year for which BJS has published this data by state and sex. For those looking for more recent, detailed data about probation and parole populations in their states, this data may be available from individual state community supervision agencies. ↩