Community corrections as a whole has changed dramatically over the last half-century. Due to a rapid and overwhelming increase of the offender population – largely due to policy changes – we have witnessed an immense increase in the use of community sanctions at the community level, including probation and parole. It has only been within the last 10 years that community correctional populations have begun to decrease.
While much attention has been paid to the crisis of mass incarceration in the United States, a majority of individuals under correctional control are supervised in the community. As of 2022, roughly 1.9 million individuals are incarcerated in the United States – while over 3.7 million are under some form of community-level control.  The sheer volume of individuals under community correction is rarely noted, but has important resonance for offender recidivism, reincarceration, and life chances more generally. The public may view probation or parole as concessions to offenders, but in fact, these methods of supervision have the power to dramatically improve offenders’ success – or to send them to jail or prison.
As we have discussed, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a fundamental shift in corrections. This is largely due to the “Nothing Works” dogma in the area of rehabilitation. In turn, there was a nationwide turn toward the use of “institutional corrections,” or prison and jail sentences. Yet, when parole is available, the use of institutional corrections has dramatic implications for community corrections, as incarcerated offenders are ultimately released to the supervision of a parole officer. Moreover, as the U.S. prison population has bulged, many policymakers have started to realize the value and necessity of community sanctions for relieving an overcrowded, and ineffective, system.
At the same time, community corrections has also evolved in line with the “punitive turn” in criminal justice. The last 40 years has seen the rise of what are often termed “intermediate sanctions,” or punishments in between traditional probation (offender supervision in community, with behavioral restrictions) and traditional incarceration (continuous offender detention in prison or jail). Examples include house arrest, electronic monitoring, shock incarceration (incarceration for a very short period), and intensive supervision probation (with more regular PO check-ins or daily drug-testing.)
As stated before, there are three primary goals for corrections: to punish the offender, to rehabilitate the offender, and to protect society. Often the first and third goals take precedent, displacing and even opposing the goal of rehabilitation. Here is an example of how this might happen.
Imagine a man, who is married, has a couple of kids, a stable blue-collar job, a house/mortgage, and is living just a little bit better than a paycheck to paycheck. We can call him Joe Citizen. Joe likes to hang out with his friends after a adult soccer league game, have a beer and catch up on life. For all intents and purposes, Joe is a decent guy. He does not have a significant criminal record. Perhaps one misdemeanor when he was a juvenile, and a couple of speeding tickets, like tens of millions of other adults.
However, one time after practice, Joe is driving home when his wife texts him to pick up some eggs at the store. He looks down at his phone at the exact same time that someone pulls out in front of him. An accident occurs. No one is seriously injured, but the damage to both vehicles is enough to warrant a write-up of the accident. This leads to police presence. At the scene, the officer smells alcohol on Joe. The officer is obligated to go through standard procedures, which results in Joe being arrested. The question is this – what should Joe’s punishment be?
This question forces us to reckon with both the rule of law, and unintended consequences of punishment. Arguably, Joe should be punished, as he chose to drive after drinking alcohol. But would Joe’s incarceration lead to other events that may have lasting, negative effects for both Joe, his family, and the larger community?
This brings up the question of “collateral consequences,” or the long-term, informal consequences of criminal sanctions. If Joe receives a lengthy jail sentence, will he lose his job? Will he lose his family? Will this put him a greater risk of recidivating in the future? At what point has the immediate action caused punishment beyond what the law stipulates is punishment?
- Sawyer, W., and Wagner, P. (2022). Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie, 2022. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2022.html#community ↵