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Just Facts: The Probation Nation

It’s impossible to understand the true scope of America’s criminal justice system without looking at probation.

  • Matthew Friedman
March 29, 2016

There are 4 million people on proba­tion, which is about the same number of people who live in Connecti­cut or Oklahoma. Here’s a look at the numbers.

While it is common know­ledge that Amer­ica incar­cer­ates more citizens than any other indus­tri­al­ized nation, most people don’t know it is also the world leader in proba­tion. More than half of those involved with the correc­tions system in the United States are serving proba­tion, not confined to insti­tu­tions. Gener­ally speak­ing, proba­tion is used for someone found guilty of a crime. Instead of impris­on­ment, the person is placed under some form of super­vi­sion but allowed to continue living in the community. Terms of proba­tion may include regu­lar report­ing to a proba­tion officer, drug test­ing and treat­ment, travel restric­tions, or prohib­i­tion from contact­ing certain people.

In 2014, the last year for which data is avail­able, there were 3.9 million people on proba­tion and 2.2 million in prison or jail.

Size of U.S. Crim­inal Justice System, 1980–2014

Source: Bureau of Justice Stat­ist­ics, Correc­tional Popu­la­tions in the United States, (vari­ous editions).

How Preval­ent Is Proba­tion?

The number of people on proba­tion in the U.S. has exploded from 1.1 million in 1980 to more than 3.9 million in 2014. The proba­tion popu­la­tion peaked in 2007 at 4.3 million, and it has been drift­ing slowly down­ward ever since.   

Proba­tion­ers per 100,000 Adults, 2013–2014

Sources: Bureau of Justice Stat­ist­ics, Robina Insti­tute.

That amounts to 1,568 proba­tion­ers for every 100,000 adult resid­ents in the U.S. in 2014. This figure masks a high degree of vari­ab­il­ity between states, however. Figures range from a rate of roughly 368 proba­tion­ers per 100,000 adult resid­ents in New Hamp­shire to 6,161 per 100,000 adults in Geor­gia. As a nation, the United States outpaces the aver­age proba­tion rate among European coun­tries by more than 400 percent despite similar crime rates.

For Every 100 Amer­ic­ans, This Many Are…

Sources: Bureau of Justice Stat­ist­ics, Vari­ous.

Why Proba­tion Matters

Proba­tion is a key cog in the system’s entire wheel. Millions of people are under super­vi­sion at any given time. It’s impossible to under­stand the true scope of Amer­ica’s crim­inal justice system without look­ing at proba­tion.