Probation and Parole Systems Marked by High Stakes, Missed Opportunities

The Pew Charitable Trusts put out a chartbook describing the probation and parole systems in the United States. Although opioid use is not a key focus, it is reported that those on community supervision are two to three times as likely to use substances as those in the general population. The growth of the community corrections system, disparities among the people under its control, and opportunities to improve public safety are addressed.

In the United States, twice as many people are on probation or parole than are incarcerated in jails and prisons. This number has more than tripled since 1980. This equates to about 2 percent of the population or 1 in 55 adults, however the per capita rate of supervision can vary greatly from state to state from 1 in 18 in Georgia to 1 in 168 in New Hampshire.

Men and people of color (especially African-Americans) are overrepresented on community supervision. African-Americans make up 30% of the people on probation or parole but only 13% of the country’s adult population. Although the number of females being supervised has greatly increased in the past few decades, men are still supervised at about 3.5 times the rate of women.

The majority of those on community supervision, 80% of probationers and 67% of parolees, were convicted of nonviolent crimes. About 50% of people are able to successfully complete their supervision. The half that does not successfully complete their probation or parole often winds up in jail or prison. Approximately 20% of people released from state-run prisons get sent back due to committing a new crime. An additional 20% go back because of a technical violation.

This is an example of the system’s focus on catching mistakes instead of emphasizing rehabilitation and support. Research has shown that targeting supervision to the appropriate people is extremely important. The greatest reductions in recidivism have been found when resources are given to those considered high risk or in need of treatment. There is some evidence that reforming the system could lead to reduced caseloads and fewer revocations. However, to be successful, the system must become more evidence-based, focused, goal-based, integrated, and constructive.


Pew Charitable Trusts. (2018). Probation and parole systems marked by high stakes, missed opportunities. Retrieved from