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David E. Olson

Despite all the attention paid to the growing prison populations in the United States since the early 1990s, it remains, as it has throughout recent history, that probation accounts for the largest portion of those under the custody of the criminal justice system. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that at the end of 2015, there were more than 3.7 million adults under the supervision of U.S. probation authorities, compared to 1.5 million in prison, 870,000 on parole, and 728,000 in local jails. And while probation is not often thought about within the context of “mass incarceration” in the United States, probation directly impacts prison and jail populations in two specific ways. First, a sentence of probation for a felony offense is the most frequent alternative to a prison sentence. Second, the revocation of probation can directly lead to the imposition of a sentence to prison or jail, depending on the nature of the original conviction offense. During 2015, in the United States, it is estimated that 12% of all probationers exiting supervision were incarcerated due to probation revocation, which translates to an estimate of more than 233,000 probationers annually. Probation revocation means that the sentencing court has determined that a violation of the conditions of probation have occurred, and because of this, the original probation sentence is no longer appropriate. As a result of a probation sentence being revoked, the sentencing court imposes a different (usually more serious) sanction on the offender. Often, those on probation for a felony offense who have their probation revoked are sentenced to prison, leading to their admission to prison. Indeed, given this link, scholars and practitioners have identified reducing probation revocation as one strategy to reducing prison populations, and jurisdictions often focus on reducing probation revocations as a means to lowering their commitments to prison. Probation revocation can result from either new arrests or violations of technical aspects of the sentence, such as missed appointments or non-compliance with treatment orders. However, whether or not a probation sentence is revoked as a result of these violations varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. This variation in the use of probation revocation as a response to violations of probation illustrates the localized nature of revocation proceedings, and attempts to reduce these disparities have taken many forms. These efforts to reduce the impact of probation revocations on prison admissions have ranged from providing local jurisdictions with financial incentives to respond to revocation-eligible violations with sanctions other than incarceration, to legislative efforts to prohibit sentences to prison as a response to probation revocations stemming from technical violations or instances where public safety is not threatened.


Mass imprisonment in the United States is an epidemic that has spread across five generations affecting millions of individuals, their families, and hundreds of communities. The United States imprisons more people than any other nation in the world—with over 2 million behind bars and another 5 to 7 million under community supervision on parole and probation. With 5% of the world’s population, the United States has 25% of all the world’s prisoners. This U.S. system imposes many punitive policies, holding more of its citizens in isolation and solitary confinement than all the other prisons of the world combined and imposing the highest rates of life sentences of any nation. This public health analysis of mass incarceration in the United States (first proposed in Ernest Drucker’s 2011 book, A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America) must therefore also address the high rates of prisoner reentry that accompany it—with over 600,000 U.S. prisoners reentering society each year—with the highest recidivism rate of any nation. This population is disproportionally poor and members of America’s large minority populations (African Americans and Latinos). The public health model provides a new tool for ending the American epidemic of mass imprisonment and, of equal importance, healing those who have survived its blows. This stage of the American story of mass incarceration is covered in Drucker’s 2018 book, Decarcerating America: From Mass Punishment to Public Health. But releasing people from prisons is not enough—the taint of punishment has a long-lasting and debilitating effect on the millions who return from prison to their home communities—facing social stigma and the many restrictions placed upon them as part of the conditions of parole—including limits of their access to public education, healthcare, and housing—as well as convicted felons’ loss of the right to vote. The United States badly needs a paradigm shift that replaces these impediments to successful reentry after prison, creating instead a positive place and normal life for this population in the outside world.


James M. Binnall and Maryanne Alderson

Reentry is the process of ending a period of incarceration, leaving jail or prison, and returning to society. Not to be confused with reintegration or recidivism, reentry is not a measure of success or failure. Instead, reentry is a journey, and no two reentries are analogous. The reentry process is individualized and highly dependent on a number of factors including a reentering individual’s sentence structure, incarceration experience, and postrelease resources. Depending on these factors, a reentering individual may find his or her return to the free world a relatively smooth transition or a task riddled with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. To navigate such obstacles, most reentering individuals need assistance. Traditionally, reentry assistance was provided by the state, through correctional programming in prison or by parole authorities tasked with monitoring a reentering individual postrelease. In recent years, nonprofit and faith-based organizations have increasingly been a part of innovative reentry initiatives. There has also been a recent expansion of Internet-based reentry resources, such as reentry.net and exoffenders.net, which allow those experiencing reentry to obtain reentry resources online. Reentry initiatives typically take two forms: deficit-based and strengths-based. Deficit-based reentry models use actuarial assessments to identify a reentering individual’s criminogenic risks and needs. In theory, deficit-based models then address those risks and needs through measured, tailored responses. Critics of deficit-based models argue that by focusing only on risks and needs, such approaches overlook reentering individuals’ talents and skills. Acknowledging these criticisms, many reentry initiatives have shifted away from the traditional deficits-centered model of reentry and toward a strengths-based approach. Rather than focusing on the risks and needs of a reentering individual, strengths-based approaches highlight the attributes of reentering individuals and draw on the experiences of former offenders who have successfully navigated their own reentry and best understand the pitfalls of the process. Recent, albeit limited empirical and experiential evidence supports the strength-based approach to reentry, suggesting that the concerns and insights of those who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system make the transition from incarceration to freedom a smoother one.