The Paradox of Probation: Understanding Probation Expansion during the Prison Boom

This guest post comes from another of our conference keynote speakers, Michelle Phelps, who is currently a PhD candidate at Princeton University but will soon take up a post as Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota.

Over the past 4 decades, the United States embarked on an unparalleled expansion of imprisonment, earning a dubious international reputation for being the world’s leader in incarceration. Between 1980 and 2010, the number of individuals incarcerated in state prisons increased from 300,000 to 1.3 million persons.  As this expansion of “mass incarceration” developed, scholars took note, describing the causes and consequences of this profound shift.

And yet, scholars have paid relatively little attention to the even larger expansion of probation—a form of community supervision that allows individuals convicted of crimes to serve their time in their home communities. In fact, the development of mass incarceration paled in comparison to the enormous increase in what I term “mass probation.” Between 1980 and 2010, the number of individuals under state probation supervision in the U.S. increased from 1.1 to 4.1 million persons. Surprisingly, American scholars have largely neglected this expansion, leaving unanswered many questions about the rise of mass probation and its meaning for understanding contemporary punishment.

In my talk at the conference, I will focus on two key “paradoxes” around probation:

1. Does the expansion of probation help to reduce—or expand—incarceration rates? Much of the public policy talk around probation defines it as an “alternative to prison” that diverts cases away from incarceration and towards imprisonment. Advocates for expanding probation have consistently argued that probation is more cost-effective form of supervision that provides a better chance for individual rehabilitation. However, a more critical tradition from sociology suggests that while probation may intend to divert individuals from prison, in practice, it serves as a “net-widener” that increases punishment for low-level offenses. Further, once inside of this “net,” critics argue that probationers become more susceptible to future imprisonment due to the increased restrictions and monitoring of probation supervision.

2. How do we understand the expansion of an “alternative” sanction during the prison boom? Given the focus in the U.S. of incapacitating an ever-growing prisoner population during this period, it is surprising that probation—which long held ties to the “rehabilitative ideal” in corrections—rapidly expanded. Despite the focus on the prison boom and mass incarceration, probation remains the most prevalent form of supervision. Other scholars at the conference (Gwen Robinson, Fergus McNeill, and Shadd Maruna) have referred to this as the “improbable persistence of probation.” I analyze this theoretical puzzle through the lens of the U.S. experience—a notable case study given its extreme push for more and tougher criminal sanctions.

In answer to both riddles, I argue that we must understand probation as a complex institution, occupying a liminal space between rehabilitative and punitive ideologies and practices. Using quantitative national data and case studies of probation in individual states, I argue that probation both embodies the rehabilitative impulse to provide a more lenient, progressive, and supportive form of criminal justice supervision and the punitive impulse to surveil vast swaths of the population—particularly in urban spaces. Similarly, probation both helps to divert individual cases away from prison and to expand the net of carceral control. Rather than trying to answer the question of punitive vs. rehabilitative, or net-widener vs. prison alternative, researchers must instead investigate when, where, and how probation serves these diverse ends—and how the two logics collide and intertwine. My talk will offer a first look at these answers in the U.S. context and provide an outline for future research.

2 Comments on “The Paradox of Probation: Understanding Probation Expansion during the Prison Boom

  1. Dear Fergus,

    I would be particularly interested in accessing Michelle Phelps talk as it resonates with many of the thoughts that have arisen for me since I left the Probation Service after 20 years as a Probation Officer. I appreciate that there have been a rash of well received publications of late from Probation academics, including Rob Canton,J Deering & G Mair on the shifting occupational and organisational changes in the PS. But the idea of ‘ mass probation’ as an organising concept that brings the diverse ends of Probation together ie the rehab v punitive dyad appears to offer newer insights and merits considered scholarship!




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