A Look at Probation and Parole as the Primary Alternatives to Jails and Prisons

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Updated: Aug 17, 2023
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Probation and parole are the primary alternatives to jails and prisons. While there are many similarities between these two systems, there are a few obvious differences. One difference is evident in their definitions. Probation is defined as “releasing the convicted offenders into the community under a conditional suspended sentence, avoiding imprisonment, showing good behavior under the supervision of a probation officer” (Black, 1990:1202 cited in Champion, 2005, p.

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131). Parole is defined as “the conditional release of a prisoner from either prison or jail, under supervision, after a portion of the sentence has been served” (McKean and Raphael, 2002 cited in Champion, 2005, p. 286). The obvious difference is that probationers have the opportunity to avoid incarceration, whereas parolees are incarcerated first and then have the opportunity for early release from prison after serving a portion of their sentence in prison or jail. The exception to this rule is called Shock Probation, which is a relatively new practice that some states have adopted. The concept of Shock Probation is almost identical in nature to the parole system, except Shock Probation sentences the offender to jail, not prison. Also, when the offender is sentenced, he is led to believe that he is going to serve his entire sentence in jail. Another difference is that probation is usually only available to those who have committed minor offenses, while parole is reserved for more serious offenses. Also, the parolees may be subject to more rigid rules to follow while under supervision than probationers, and they must abide by these rules in order to avoid being sent back to prison.

Some similarities of the probation and parole systems are that the offenders in these programs have committed crimes and have been found guilty. The offenders have been assigned a probation or parole officer and have been ordered to abide by the rules and terms of their specific program in order to remain eligible for probation or parole. Both probation and parole have the impending consequence of confinement should the offender violate any terms of their parole or probation. Another similarity of these two alternative forms of punishment is the philosophy behind them, which for the most part is based on rehabilitation. Although there has been a slight shift toward societal retribution rather than rehabilitation where parole is concerned, rehabilitation is still the main focus of parole. Parole and probation serve similar purposes or functions, such as promoting effective reintegration into society through rehabilitation, acting as a deterrence of criminal activity and attempting to control crime. They function as forms of punishment with a focus on rehabilitating the offender. Furthermore, probation and parole serve to reduce prison overcrowding in jails and prisons and to protect society. However, this latter point is arguable due to the fact that some offenders commit other crimes while on probation or parole, which could have been avoided had they been confined in the first place.

When comparing the impact that probation and parole have on the deterrence and control of crime, one can also find similarities as well as differences. Some argue that these alternatives are more effective than incarceration while others argue in favor of incarceration as the most effective way of deterring criminal behavior. Probation and parole are said to have an effect on crime control and crime deterrence. However, according to Champion (2005),

Precisely how much crime control occurs as a result of probation is unknown. When offenders are outside the immediate presence of probation officers, they may or may not engage in undetected criminal activity. Standard protection offers little by way of true crime control, since there is minimal contact between offenders and their probation officers. However, it is believed that even standard probation offers some measure of crime control by extending to probationers a degree of trust as well as minimal behavioral restrictions (p. 146).

Minimal contact usually occurs when the number of probationers assigned to a probation officer is exceptionally high. Thus, it is believed that the amount of supervision directly impacts the amount of crime control. Probation seems to be most effective in controlling crime when there is a higher level of direct contact between the probation officer and the probationer. Furthermore, probation does not seem to have much of an impact on the deterrence of future criminal activity. Champion (2005) states that this is “because of the low degree of offender control associated with standard probation supervision, which often means no supervision at all, recidivism rates are higher than those associated with offenders in more intensively supervised intermediate punishment programs” (p. 147). Like probation, the effectiveness of parole for controlling crime and deterring future criminal activity is considered limited. According to a Nebraska study, inmates who were denied parole became more compliant with institutional rules and their behavior improved as a result of the denial. Based on these findings, Champion (2005) states that, “the prospect of parole provides a strong incentive for inmates to comply with institutional rules” (p. 296). On the other hand, this has no bearing on whether or not they will obey the laws of society upon release from prison. It merely proves that they are capable of abiding by the rules, especially when it benefits them to do so. According to recidivism rates, the majority of parolees choose not to remain law-abiding at some point after they are released. Likewise, the recidivism rates for probationers are not impressive either. However, the recidivism rate is significantly lower for those probationers who are subjected to more intensive supervision programs. Thus, indicating that more intense supervision leads to less crime.

While intensive supervision seems to have more of an impact on probationers, it is questionable whether or not this has the same impact when used on parolees. Some assume that parolees, after experiencing prison life and now having a shot at freedom, would be more likely to change their ways for fear of returning to prison. However, studies have shown that this is often not the case. Perhaps, this is due to the widespread belief that prisons are merely a school of learning for criminal behavior. If this is, in fact, the case, then arguably, the parole system needs to be restructured in order to more closely examine the likelihood of rehabilitating an offender post-incarceration. On one hand, there are the probationers who mess up and inevitably end up in jail or prison, and on the other, the parolees who have already done time and inevitably mess up and return to prison. So what is the point of combining them? By doing so, perhaps the programs could be intensified, leading to a greater success rate for both.

In looking at the similarities of the two and acknowledging that the similarities outweigh the differences, I would say that there is definitely a case for consolidation. However, neither of the programs, as they stand, is very successful in deterring or controlling crime. To make them more effective, consolidation alone will not accomplish this task. The main philosophy behind both programs is rehabilitation, which I believe should be the starting point for improving the system. I think that probation and parole should be combined into one system, along with more intense supervision and an intense focus on rehabilitative programs. Also, I think there needs to be a more in-depth pre-sentencing system. Perhaps this could include actual psychologists to look at the profiles of each individual offender, their patterns and history of behavior, and the likelihood of their desire to be rehabilitated or not. Instead of using pre-sentencing reports to merely determine sentencing, I am suggesting that these reports be used to determine the placement of offenders. I think we need to stop grouping convicts by the years they have to serve and start grouping them instead by the probability of whether or not they are good candidates for rehabilitation. Not only does their offense need to be considered, but also the likelihood of whether or not they will offend again given the opportunity. If we were to convert our current penal system into a system that grouped inmates into three categories: those most likely to reform, those that could sway either way and those least likely to reform, I think we would have a much better chance at rehabilitating criminal offenders. We need to stop throwing the offenders who have the potential to reform, in with the worst of the worst, simply because they were both sentenced to ten years. History has shown us that the offender who might be reformed will not reform the hardened criminal. Instead, the hardened criminal will more than likely further corrupt the criminal who could have been rehabilitated. The hardened criminal will have a negative impact on the criminal who has the potential to change rather than the other way around.

In conclusion, I think that probation and parole ought to be combined into one system, coupled with a greater degree of intensity and focus on rehabilitation, supervision, and psychological evaluation for proper placement. Furthermore, I think that locking an offender up for a period of time and then releasing them on good behavior could be effective if used in the right way. By this, I mean that by employing a program that would separate offenders based on their likelihood for reform, we would promote a more positive impact on their behaviour, rather than subjecting them to more criminal behavior.

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A Look at Probation and Parole as the Primary Alternatives to Jails and Prisons. (2023, Feb 11). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/a-look-at-probation-and-parole-as-the-primary-alternatives-to-jails-and-prisons/