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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.