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America’s Penal System & the Probation Trap

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and while there are many disturbing factors that have contributed to this trend, one of the least-discussed is the complex system of parole and probation that continues to ensnare convicted individuals long after they have paid their debt to society.

An Economically Unjust and Inefficient Probation System

One of the major problems of probation is that it is both expensive and economically inefficient to keep so many individuals under the supervision of probation departments. In the state of Pennsylvania, nearly 32,000 people are on probation, and according to Philadelphia attorney Brian J. Zeiger, who was interviewed for this article, “If we slimmed this down we would need less parole/probation officers, and the taxpayers would save money.”

When an individual is on probation, they must comply with a number of requirements pertaining to their behavior and conduct, but there is often also a significant financial burden that comes with this–an individual on probation is likely to experience a heavy obligation to certain costs, ranging from “supervision fees” to restitution for their crimes.

The majority of individuals on probation come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and often have trouble finding well-paying jobs while on probation as a result of criminal records and time spent behind bars, out of the workforce.

This combination of circumstances puts probationers in a now-in financial situation: as a result of being on probation, they are incurring massive debts that end up being nearly impossible to pay. as a result of not being able to pay these fees, a probationer can have his period of probation extended, or even be forced to return to prison.  This then allows probation boards to keep people on probation for far longer than they deserve, unfairly punishing probationers who come from lower-class socioeconomic backgrounds.

“Fees, costs and restitution should not be a condition to completion of parole or probation. Indigent people should not have violations for not being able to pay, which in a sense creates violations that keep them on parole/probation for the rest of their lives,” stated Zeiger in our interview.

Supervision fees are designed to cover the cost of being paroled or placed on probation, so essentially, individuals paying these fees are paying to be under the supervision of the criminal justice system and probation officers. Due to the fact that probation departments are often strapped for cash and don’t have enough funds to pay probation officers, this cost is often passed on to the unfortunate probationers who must foot the bill.

“We’re all dependent on probation fees in Texas… In our department, you know… between 40% and 60% of our combined budgets comes in probation fees depending on what month we’re looking at,” stated a probation officer in Texas during a 2017 University of Minnesota study.

As a result of the disorganized and punitive nature of the probation system, state and local governments must squeeze every penny they can out of individuals who have already served time for their alleged crimes, as well as passing the remaining bill onto unfortunate taxpayers.

Probation Often Means Returning to Prison

Probationers can be forced to return to prison as a result of falling behind on their supervision fees and other monetary charges, but this is only one of the many traps of a system that seems designed to keep as many individuals as possible behind bars. The offenses that constitute a violation of probation vary from state to state, putting a huge amount of discretionary power in the hands of local courts and probation departments. Some of these statutes are so misguided that they can appear ridiculous and unbelievable to a common American.

For example, in Pennsylvania, an individual on probation can be incarcerated if “such a sentence is essential to vindicate the authority of the court,” which not only provides judges with a huge amount of latitude in sentencing decisions, but also seems to encourage them to incarcerate individuals who have questioned the motives of the court system. As a result of this legal loophole, a judge can incarcerate an individual just to prove that the court maintains absolute power and control, and will severely punish any individual that dares to question its judgment.

Due to laws such as this, a huge percentage of people currently serving prison time are incarcerated as a result of violating one of the many arcane terms of their probation. According to the Council of State Governments, one-third of all prisoners in the state of Pennsylvania are incarcerated as a result of violating the terms of their probation.

The probation trap comes off as just another trick in the prison system’s arsenal, designed to keep current and former offenders under lock and key for as long as humanly possible. These individuals have already served time for their crimes, but as a result of not being able to pay for probation or accidentally causing a judge to feel disrespected, they were forced to return to prison.

Revamping the Probation System in the U.S.

Reducing the number of people in prison in the United States is vital for a number of social and economic reasons, but it is important to remember that once an individual is released from prison, they have a long road ahead of them, filled with traps and pitfalls engineered by a probation system that seems more bent on returning them to prison than integrating them back into society. By modifying the terms of probation and eliminating unfair costs associated with the practice, more offenders can successfully re-enter society and the tendency for a convicted criminal to reoffend as a result of probation violations is sure to decrease.


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