Skip Navigation

Book Review — Mass Supervision: Probation, Parole, and the Illusion of Safety and Freedom

A former New York City probation commissioner highlights how well-intentioned community supervision has gone awry and makes a compelling case for systemic change.

November 2, 2023

Thomas Barrett stole a $2 beer from an Augusta, Georgia, store in 2012 and was sentenced to probation. The state outsourced the management of his probation to a private company, which ended up charging Barrett over $1,000 in fines and fees that he couldn’t afford — not surprising for a 52-year-old former pharmacist with a drug addiction who had regularly sold his plasma to pay rent. The company filed a technical violation against Barrett for failing to make payments, and a judge sentenced him to 12 months in jail.

Barrett’s is but one of the stories that Vincent Schiraldi, a former New York City probation commissioner, recounts in his new book, Mass Supervision: Probation, Parole, and the Illusion of Safety and Freedom. The book provides a detailed critique of community supervision, which encompasses both probation — originally intended as a front-end alternative to incarceration — and parole — designed as a back-end early release opportunity from prison.

Schiraldi, now secretary of Maryland’s Department of Juvenile Services, has spent most of his career as a justice reform advocate interspersed with forays into corrections leadership and academia. His book successfully weaves together many individual accounts along with research and data, a history of the origins of probation and parole, and his own experience. He makes a compelling case that community supervision has strayed far from its twin goals of supplanting incarceration and reducing crime. Instead, Schiraldi notes, probation and parole have all too often become “trip wires into incarceration” with no measurable improvement to public safety.

The title, Mass Supervision, is a deliberate allusion to mass incarceration, as Schiraldi holds that community supervision shares many of the same ills: excessively punitive, criminalizing poverty, and perpetuating systemic racial disparities. He also shows how privatizing government functions leads to warped incentives, as well as how probation and parole are driving cycles of recidivism rather than rehabilitating individuals and creating safer communities.

Unlike mass incarceration, however, which has become a focus of broad reform efforts, the problems with supervision still fly largely under the radar. But that has been changing recently: groups such as Reform Alliance have spearheaded state campaigns to reform probation and parole, and there are also legislative proposals, such as the Safer Supervision Act, to reform them at the federal level.

Nevertheless, Schiraldi notes that probation and parole remain cloaked in their origins as kinder, gentler alternatives to imprisonment, ways for individuals who otherwise would be incarcerated to shorten their imprisonment or avoid it altogether. Courts, as he points out, have extrapolated from supervision’s beneficent origins to justify minimal due process protections for supervisees, allowing searches of their homes, determinations of violations of the rules, and even imprisonment with little oversight.

The rules themselves have become part of the problem. The book shows how “standard conditions” of community supervision have multiplied, often unrelated to the original offense. Violations of minor and arbitrary rules lead to revocations of probation or parole, resulting in imprisonment and even additional time added to sentences. Probation and parole officers no longer focus primarily on providing support but on policing the maze of conditions.

One infamous example is the story of hip-hop artist Robert Rihmeek Williams, more popularly known as Meek Mill, who is featured in the book. His original sentence for robbery at 19 included a three-year term of probation, which culminated 12 years later in a two- to four-year sentence of imprisonment for technical violations. (While that was on appeal, the original conviction was overturned due to police misconduct.)

Mill’s case was hardly extraordinary. Indeed, Schiraldi cites cases of people choosing incarceration simply to get out of the onerous burdens of supervision.

The inevitable question, given the book’s litany of the failures of probation and parole, is what should be done. Schiraldi’s proposal, which he calls incremental abolition, is essentially to put the “community” into “community supervision.” He advocates for removing supervision from government bureaucracies and for-profit companies and reallocating funding to community-led groups for reentry and rehabilitation services. He points to experiments that have worked to a certain degree, particularly in New York City, which over the past three decades has dramatically reduced supervision enforcement through a network of nonprofits providing diversion and alternatives to incarceration, with no harm to public safety.

This is a tough time, though, to make an argument for even incrementally “abolishing” supervision, which is intended, at least in theory, to reduce prison populations while also protecting communities. Schiraldi argues that community supervision has done neither — but can policymakers and the public be sold on his new vision? In an era when a host of justice reforms have faced backlash because of concerns, however misplaced, about their impact on public safety, how can a wholesale restructuring and downsizing of supervision succeed? At a minimum, a decent portion of law enforcement, probation and parole departments, judges, prosecutors, city leaders, and other stakeholders — not to mention the media and a crime-wary public — would all need to buy into this vision.

In the book, Schiraldi highlights some efforts to bring these constituencies along. He describes, for example, what seems to have been a challenging, but frank, meeting he had with prosecutors in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office (at the invitation of the current reform-oriented DA Larry Krasner) in the wake of the Meek Mill case. Schiraldi also expresses broad sympathy for the challenges and pressures on probation and parole officers.

Successfully bringing this type of systemic change to the criminal justice system is a tall order that will likely require broader and more concerted efforts to change minds. Schiraldi’s book provides a compelling argument for why those concerned about justice and public safety should seriously consider his blueprint for reducing mass supervision.