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Scott Peyton | December 19, 2019
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan described the Statue of Liberty as a “beacon of hope.” This icon of Liberty and Democracy has been a “beacon of hope” for so many people in our country and abroad since 1886. Last week, I saw Lady Liberty for the first time! Seeing the Statue of Liberty—taking in the sounds, the excitement, and the feelings of New York in person, visiting the 9/11 Memorials, and all the history and bustle of New York City—reminded me of how great it is to live in the United States of America.
I was invited to New York to attend the inaugural conference and convening for EXiT: Executives Transforming Probation and Parole on the campus of Columbia University in New York City. As a former probation officer turned criminal justice reform advocate, I was honored to have been invited to this important conference about the future of community supervision. The goal of EXiT is to have community supervision be “substantially downsized, less punitive, and more hopeful, equitable, and restorative.” After attending the conference, I have renewed hope that our probation and parole systems nationwide can be effective alternatives to incarceration.
In addition to the many historical and beautiful sights in New York, I was reminded at the conference of the historical roots of probation. John Augustus, the “Father of Probation,” was a shoemaker in Boston during the 1800’s. In 1841, he petitioned the court to allow a man arrested for public intoxication to be conditionally released to his custody. The court granted the release. Weeks later, the man returned to court rehabilitated and granted a full release. In 1878, a law was passed to create a probation officer position at the Boston criminal courts, and the rest is history. This was a great introduction to the conference, and set the stage for what was to follow from the panels.
Since 1878, probation and parole has grown exponentially into a system that encompasses over 4.5 million people nationwide. In Louisiana, approximately 60,000 people are on probation and parole. While probation and parole can be effective alternatives to incarceration, one panelist from the conference nonetheless described probation as a “delayed form of incarceration.” It is understandable why: probation and parole revocations accounted for nearly 50 percent of all prison admissions in Louisiana in 2018. This translates to 7,965 people having their supervision revoked. Twenty-four percent of these individuals were convicted of a new crime, leaving the remaining 76 percent sent to prison for technical violations of the conditions of their supervision.
Fortunately, this number has declined by almost 2 percent since the 2017 Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) reforms.
Several of the panelists were formerly-incarcerated persons. They echoed what I have heard and experienced first-hand from my employment as a probation and parole officer. They want their voices heard in the discussions on how to improve and strengthen community supervision. It was no surprise to hear “hope” mentioned by almost all of the formerly incarcerated people on the panel. They want to see a system that recognizes that a person can be rehabilitated and one that does not disrupt a person’s progress toward rehabilitation.
Louisiana’s probation and parole system has in place many of the reforms suggested by EXiT and other organizations, and has made great strides to change the culture of community supervision. In 2017, graduated sanctions, earned-compliance credits, reduced-time served for technical violations, and a cap on probation terms at three years were implemented to strengthen and improve community supervision. However, it is difficult for probation officers to be effective with caseloads of 120 persons to supervise. This allows very little bandwidth for officers to effectively assist those on supervision to overcome the barriers to employment, housing, higher education, substance abuse, and mental health concerns.
We have to continue to improve community supervision in Louisiana by taking a closer look at the geographical areas that have the highest revocation rates and determine how to address these concerns. We must continue to explore alternatives to face-to-face supervision contacts by allowing video visits and better use of technology. Probation and parole officers should continue collaborative efforts with nonprofits and re-entry coalitions to provide the necessary services to address the root causes for supervision failures. Supervision conditions should be re-visited, reduced, and tailored to suit the needs of the individual on supervision.
Public safety and victim restoration is paramount. By making continued improvements to community supervision, we will keep our communities safe while providing a system that recognizes the values of hope and redemption. Just as the Statue of Liberty stands tall and proud as a “beacon of hope” for all, probation and parole—from their inception—was intended to be a “beacon of hope” for those persons who seek a second chance and redemption.