Originally created as a way to provide a less punitive and more constructive alternative to incarceration, probation has become increasingly focused on punishing people’s setbacks, not promoting their successes. As justice systems struggle to balance monitoring and public safety with treatment and support, populations under supervision remain considerably large. Ironically, this reality has turned probation into a primary driver of incarceration.

From the perspective of people who have been supervised under probation or parole, many of the practices meant to support stability and prevent recidivism often do neither and can actually hinder individual progress.

To find out more about how this emphasis on enforcement has affected people’s paths through probation, The Pew Charitable Trusts spoke with Nicole S. Junior and Kathleen Davis, who spent time on probation in New York and Arizona, respectively. Both are now working to improve the system and help others who have gotten into trouble get their lives back on track. They spoke at length about how probation could be used to tailor supervision programming to people’s needs, but one theme rose to the top: Probation has an incentives problem.

Junior, a former prosecutor in Brooklyn who uses they/them pronouns, had every intention of using their time on probation to rebuild their life. Yet Junior found the system they were forced to navigate more harmful than helpful: “There is no way that you can say that this system is for rehabilitation, [that] this system is for assessing people’s ability to be … positive community members … The only thing that is a result of the system … is penalization. There’s nothing else … Every aspect of your day, you’re in constant fear.”

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