Minor violations a.k.a. ‘technical violations’ account for the vast majority of reimprisonment cases. Violations can be as simple as failing to answer a phone call when a parole officer calls to check in, and individuals are expected to be on stand-by 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The result is that these minor infractions “[upend] the lives [people] had tried to reestablish” according to a recent USA Today article.
Several cases have been confirmed and documented by major media publications, such as the prior mentioned article from USA Today. One of those individuals documented in by the article was attempting to get her cell phone repaired at an AT&T store, which was required to stay in contact with officials. She received verbal approval to complete the stop, but according to court records, she was at the unauthorized address for an hour and 15 minutes. She had just gotten her daughter out of foster care back to her own care, gained employment, and reenrolled in school. She was not given any notice before being taken back into custody. This type of violation is unfortunately common.
Released prisoners are subject to regularly woken up in the middle of the night with required check-in phone calls or texts. They are often subject to random drug screens which often occur during business hours, causing tension between those who gain employment and their employers. Many individuals are unable to maintain employment due to the requirements imposed by probation, such as regularly having to report during their work hours to probation office for various reasons. Most, if not all individuals, do not wish to return to prison and so they simply have to juggle the exceedingly difficult requirements imposed on them. Probation officers have almost unlimited power and can require things of people under their supervision which might conflict with their reintegration. Courts often turn a blind eye and place complete faith in the probation department to oversee those previously convicted of crimes.
In most cases, when a prison term is handed down a term of supervised release is included in the sentence. I cannot tell you how many people I have met, with parole violations, whose personalities did not match the probation officer they were paired up with. And a released prisoner’s file is not cross-referenced by other probation officers. All interactions are handled by a single individual who has complete power over determining your future. If he or she does not ‘like’ you, heading back to prison is just a matter of time. Anyone placed under 24/7 supervision is subject to fail at least once during years of probation. Technical violations, such as being late for an appointment (for something as simple as heavy traffic or an accident on the way) can get you a one way ticket back to prison immediately. This can and does happen.
This all greatly affects families and the individual’s opportunity to reintegrate with the community. It is understandable that if an individual under parole supervision commits a crime, especially one that causes harm to the community, the court returns that individual to custody. However, most violations are based on non-violent infractions of rules – not laws – that were not followed to a ‘T’. Say you receive a call in the middle of the night to check in, you miss it and call back – that is counted against you. A second night, you don’t answer immediately again, then you have earned your one-way ticket back to prison.
Could an average citizen subject to these conditions be expected to survive this kind of scrutiny without failure? We are only human. While life is expected to be harder for those convicted of crimes, the standard for supervision of released individuals should not be impossible to meet.
Probation is an extension of the court, where the judge usually, and in most cases, resorts to the court’s recommendations. They should not be promoting the idea that people need to return to prison – the long term perspective is logistical – get the individual out of the community so they don’t have to deal with a problem.
Rehabilitation takes effort. Prisoners rarely receive that inside the prison walls. Once they get out, they are forced to deal with the real world all at once. Many individuals do not have the skill-sets to survive in a new environment without a support network. This support is not given, rather it seems previously incarcerated individuals are punished for seeking it out. We are not teaching those we lock up. We believe that separation and placing them with other individuals convicted of crimes will automatically ‘cure’ them of their criminal ways. Results are directly proportional to effort. Little or no effort is made toward rehabilitating individuals within the system today and when these individuals return to society they fail. Sadly, this is to be expected, as the current system is setting people up for failure. We need to change how we evaluate what constitutes successful reintegration and by what measures. In the long term, completely separating individuals from society is not an ethical or effective way to achieve criminal justice.