Executive Session on Community Corrections, Harvard Kennedy School by Wendy Still, Barbara Broderick and Steven Raphael
Corrections in the United States Over the past three decades, the U.S. incarceration rate has increased to historic highs, while crime rates have dropped significantly. Today, the U.S. incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world. In addition to the 2.3 million people incarcerated in our nation’s jails and prisons, 4 million individuals are on probation or parole at any given time. The individuals on probation and parole — who represent the community corrections system in America — are the largest part of the correctional system.
Yet, this aspect of corrections has been largely absent from the national conversation surrounding incarceration rates and criminal justice reform — this despite the fact that community corrections presents the most obvious alternative to incarceration for many and perhaps the best opportunity for reforming the criminal justice system in ways that will promote public safety, efficiency and fairness.
Similar to the growth of prison populations during the past three decades, the number of individuals on probation in the United States has also grown. While there were 492 people on probation for every 100,000 U.S. residents in 1980, this figure peaked in 2007 at 1,425, and by 2014 had declined slightly to 1,214 (see figure 1). With nearly 4 million people on probation at any given time, this represents the largest correctional population in the nation. Interestingly, long-term trends in crime rates and arrests for serious offenses should have militated toward a smaller probation population. Arrests for serious offenses are at historic lows, especially for the relatively young. Figures 2 and 3 compare the likelihood of being arrested in 1980 and 2012, by age, for violent and property index offenses. While arrests for violent and property offenses are somewhat higher for individuals over 30, we observe pronounced decreases in arrest rates for younger individuals in the highest risk age ranges. However, arrests for drug offenses are up, way up, for all ages (figure 4) as are overall arrests for non-index crimes (figure 5). On net, the aggregate age-arrest profile changes very little as increases in less serious arrests have offset the decrease in arrests for more serious crime (figure 6). With lower crime rates, these higher arrest rates for lesser offenses likely reflect shifts in enforcement. In conjunction with stiffer sentencing and net widening in the application of probation sentences, the proportion of U.S. residents on probation has grown alongside the prison incarceration rate.