The U.S. has a staggering 2.3 million people behind bars, but even this number doesn’t capture the true scale of our correctional system. For a complete picture of our criminal justice system, it’s more accurate to look at the 6.7 million people under correctional control, which includes not only incarceration but also probation and parole.
The vast majority of people under correctional control are on probation and parole, collectively known as community supervision (or community corrections). An estimated 4.5 million adults are under community supervision, nearly twice the number of people who are incarcerated in jails and prisons combined. Yet despite the massive number of people under their control, parole and probation have not received nearly as much attention as incarceration. Only with recent high-profile cases (such as Meek Mill’s probation revocation) has the public begun to recognize the injustices plaguing probation and parole systems, which set people up to fail with long supervision terms, onerous restrictions, and constant scrutiny. Touted as alternatives to incarceration, these systems often impose conditions that make it difficult for people to succeed, and therefore end up channeling people into prisons and jails.
Understanding correctional control beyond incarceration gives us a more accurate and complete picture of punishment in the United States, showing the expansive reach of our criminal justice system. This is especially true at the state level, as some of the states that are the least likely to send someone to prison are the most likely to put them under community supervision. Given that most criminal justice reform will need to happen at the state and local levels,1 it is crucial for states to assess not only their incarceration rates, but whether their “alternatives” to incarceration are working as intended.
For this report, we compiled data on each state’s various systems of correctional control to help advocates and policymakers prioritize targets for reform. This report includes data on federal prisons, state prisons, local jails, juvenile confinement, involuntary commitment, Indian Country jails, parole, and probation. We make the data accessible in one nationwide chart and 100 state-specific pie charts. In this update to our original 2016 report, we pay particular attention to the harms of probation and parole, and discuss how these systems might be reworked into more meaningful alternatives to incarceration.
The most alarming finding when we look at the broader picture of correctional control is that nationally, over 6.7 million adults — or 1 in 37 — are under some form of correctional control.2 For perspective, if the population under correctional control were its own state, it would be the 16th largest in the nation, comparable to the size of Massachusetts or Tennessee. The majority of people under correctional control are on community supervision. 55% of people under correctional control, or 3.6 million, are on probation, and 11%, or 870,000 people, are on parole.3 While the massive scale of probation dwarfs the parole population, there are still more people on parole than in federal prisons and local jails combined.
Just as focusing only on incarceration leads to a distorted view of American punishment, focusing only on the national picture obscures important state variations. Notably, some of the states with the lowest incarceration rates, such as Rhode Island and Minnesota, are among the most punitive when probation is taken into account. Other states that rank in the bottom half of incarceration rates nationwide, such as Ohio and Idaho, end up surpassing Oklahoma — the global leader in incarceration — in rates of overall correctional control. Georgia is punitive from any angle, as the only state that is both a top jailer and leader in probation.
We find that this tremendous variation between the states is largely driven by differences in the use of probation. While states vary widely when it comes to their use of prisons and jails, there is far greater variation in their use of probation. For example, although Massachusetts and West Virginia have almost the same overall correctional control rates, 72% of those under correctional control in Massachusetts are on probation, compared to 28% in West Virginia, where far more (54%) are incarcerated in state, federal, and local jails.
Looking at correctional control rather than incarceration alone provides other surprises:
State-level data can also provide more context on how correctional populations are changing over time. Nationally, the community supervision population is slowly beginning to decrease. From 2015 to 2016 (the most recent year for which data are available), the number of people under any form of community supervision fell for the ninth year in a row, by 1.1%.5 However, looking at changes at the state level reveals that four states account for half the national decrease in probation: Illinois, Florida, Washington, and Texas collectively cut over 24,000 people from probation supervision, more than all other states combined. Meanwhile, probation populations increased in sixteen states. For example, Virginia added 5,300 more people to probation, New Jersey added 4,500, Oklahoma added 2,300, and Colorado and Arkansas each added 1,900.
To be clear, none of this is to suggest that having people on probation and parole is inherently harmful. States should not take this report as a cue to end community supervision. Instead, states should ask hard questions about their supervision systems: whether probation and parole are truly helping people get their lives back on track, and whether there are people under supervision who do not actually need monitoring.
Probation and parole are important not just because of the vast number of people under their control, but also because of the harm they inflict on individuals, families, and communities. Although typically framed as an alternative to incarceration, probation in particular is a key driver of mass incarceration. The perception of probation as a “lenient” punishment is at odds with high failure and revocation rates that land large numbers of people in jail and prison instead.
Both probation and parole set people up to fail with long supervision terms, strict conditions, and intense surveillance. Only about half of people who exit parole or probation do so after successfully completing their supervision terms; many supervision “failures” result in revocation which in turn can lead to incarceration. And this happens a lot: Annually, nearly 350,000 people are shifted from community supervision to prison or jail.
Supervision “failures” are the predictable result of probation and parole conditions. First, people under community supervision live under intense scrutiny, which often leads to the detection of low-level offending (such as drug use) or technical violations (such as breaking curfew6). Normally, incarceration would not be appropriate for such low-level offenses; they would typically be addressed through fines, community service, drug treatment programs, or no criminal justice response at all. However, for people under community supervision, these minor offenses and technical violations can lead to incarceration. This creates a “revolving door” between community supervision and incarceration, which can lead to job loss, housing instability, difficulty caring for children, interruptions in healthcare, and a host of other collateral consequences.
In addition to surveillance, people under community supervision must comply with numerous conditions, many of which are unrelated to the original offense and can be very costly. In 2015, the Robina Institute estimated that people on probation must comply with 18 to 20 requirements a day in order to remain in good standing with the probation department. Violating any of these conditions can result in prison or jail time.
While far from an exhaustive list, typical probation requirements include:
In addition to the usual requirements of probation, “courts have been known to impose a wide range of [special] conditions, ranging from the bizarre (‘[y]ou may never even sit in the front seat (of a car)’) to the controversial (don’t get pregnant) to the downright dangerous (put a bumper sticker on your car announcing you are a sex offender).” As formerly incarcerated criminal justice activist Topeka Sam, explains, these “policies, procedures, and rules [are] seldom explained and often administered arbitrarily.” Even worse, “there is no clear process to register grievances” about one’s conditions of supervision, or to appeal a decision about one’s probation or parole.
While the requirements of community supervision would be burdensome for anyone, they can be especially difficult for those on probation and parole. People under community supervision have significantly higher rates of poverty, mental illness, and lower educational attainment than the general public.8 Supervision fees (including administrative fees, electronic monitoring fees, drug screening fees, program fees, and more) can be financially crippling.9 Many of these requirements are also time-consuming and can interfere with work and family obligations. Furthermore, community supervision populations have much higher rates of addiction,10 yet parole and probation policies ignore the realities of drug addiction and relapse,11 tending to criminalize drug use rather than taking a public health approach.
Finally, like incarceration, probation and parole affect already marginalized populations in troubling ways:
Our analysis shows that, in every state, correctional systems control the daily lives of large numbers of people — and unnecessarily, in all too many cases. Prisons and jails are warehousing people struggling with substance use disorders and mental illness, who need help that correctional facilities are unsuited to provide. Local jails are filled with people who haven’t been found guilty but are awaiting trial behind bars because they are simply unable to afford money bail. And probation and parole systems anticipate (and respond to) failure rather than success — a rational result of heavy caseloads, limited resources, and a myriad of conditions to track instead of providing individualized support. All told, we are left with a bloated, ineffective, costly correctional system that inflicts further harm on individuals, families, and communities.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Probation and parole systems, in particular, can be reformed to help people exit the criminal justice system for good and lead successful lives. As we’ve discussed, probation and parole are currently broken. Policymakers should invest in strategies to make these systems tools for decarceration rather than engines for incarceration. Parole should be used as a tool for shortening lengthy sentences, and probation solely as an alternative to incarceration.
Parole can — and should — be used to make earlier release possible for people serving long sentences, especially the approximately 200,000 individuals in state prisons serving natural life or “virtual” life sentences. To do so effectively, reforms will be necessary at every level, from parole offices to state legislatures:15
Instead of surveillance, parole systems should focus on reducing the unnecessarily high barriers that people on parole face in securing education, employment, housing, and other vital resources. In most states, there is tremendous room for improvement, both in the availability and value of parole.
Probation, by design, is an important alternative to incarceration. In cases where incarceration is the only practical alternative, the use of probation should be encouraged to minimize the broad social and economic harms of incarceration. But courts should be wary of using probation as a knee-jerk response to low-level offending (it’s been used for things as minor as nonpayment of fines), and should ensure that probation prevents incarceration rather just delaying it.
Currently, probation acts as a net-widener that unnecessarily expands the correctional system’s reach to people who commit low-level crimes or who are low-risk and do not need to be under strict supervision. Instead, probation should be reserved for people who are at a high risk of reoffending and who require more support and supervision. Given the limited resources of most probation departments, it’s much more prudent to dedicate time and financial resources to those who would benefit most from probation.
To improve the effectiveness and efficiency of probation, states should reduce their outsized probation populations. In fact, experts in the field have called for cutting the probation population by 50% over the next ten years. And New York City has shown that this can be done without compromising public safety. In the 1990s, New York City reformed its probation system, reducing its population by 60% between 1996 and 2014. Even with far fewer individuals under supervision, violent crime dropped by 57% over the same period.
To reduce probation populations, courts should take note from other countries and address low-level offenses or people who are low-risk with more appropriate sanctions, including warnings, fines,18 community service, and diversion to appropriate programming, such as treatment for substance use disorders or mental health services. These alternative sanctions would not only reduce the probation population, but also the total number of people under correctional control.
In addition to restricting the use of probation to offenses serious enough to warrant correctional control, courts and probation practitioners could promote compliance and prevent future offending by:
Only with serious reforms to both the conditions and the number of people under its control can probation be a true alternative to incarceration, rather than a system that expands correctional control and drives incarceration.
This report provides another metric for understanding where your state falls within the national landscape of mass incarceration. Our state-specific breakdowns (below) suggest where state advocates and policymakers might start when developing proposals for meaningful justice reform. The most effective reforms will reduce the number of people under correctional control in total, and transform broken probation and parole systems into supportive alternatives to incarceration.
The graphs made for this briefing are included in our profiles for each state:
and are available individually from this list:
|Alabama||incarceration pie chart correctional control pie chart|
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|Wyoming||incarceration pie chart correctional control pie chart|
For all the data we use in this report, the interactive chart, and the 100+ pie charts, see our data appendix and read below for more information about how this data was collected and prepared.
The non-profit, non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative was founded in 2001 to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization and spark advocacy campaigns to create a more just society. The organization is known for its visual breakdown of mass incarceration in the U.S., as well as its data-rich analyses of how states vary in their use of punishment. The Prison Policy Initiative’s research is designed to reshape debates around mass incarceration by offering the “big picture” view of critical policy issues, such as probation and parole, pretrial detention, and reentry outcomes.
Alexi Jones is a Policy Analyst and a graduate of Wesleyan University, where she worked as a tutor through Wesleyan's Center for Prison Education. In Boston, she continued working as a tutor in a women's prison through the Petey Greene Program. Before joining the Prison Policy Initiative in 2018, Alexi conducted research related to health policy, neuroscience, and public health.
This report was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Public Welfare Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge, and the contributions of individuals across the country who support justice reform. While Prison Policy Initiative reports are collaborative endeavors, this report builds on the successful collaborations of 2016 version. I am particularly indebted to Wendy Sawyer for her support throughout the writing process and Wanda Bertram and Peter Wagner for their edits. I would also like to thank the rest of the Prison Policy Initiative staff who helped me gather research.