Individuals who are unfamiliar with the criminal justice system may think that a convicted criminal is sentenced to a certain period of time in prison and when released has paid his -- or her -- debt to society in full and is as free as anyone without a criminal record. However, in most cases, prisoners released from jail or prison are sentenced to additional time on probation or parole as a sort of transitional phase in their lives during which they have a much higher level of supervision than does the ordinary individual. This period of time is -- ideally -- one in which each individual can make a smooth transition back to ordinary civilian life while at the same time posing a reduced risk to public safety.
A few basic definitions will be useful at this point. While "probation" and "parole" are parallel terms, they can refer to different legal statuses, depending on the jurisdiction. In many states, probation refers to early release from jail, or the period following release from jail. Jails are used to incarcerate inmates who have been convicted of relatively minor crimes (or are awaiting trial, but this type of inmate is not eligible for probation). Jail in the United States is almost always used for inmates who have a year or less to serve.
Probation, on the other hand, is a term that is applied to inmates who have been released (early or not) from prison. They have been convicted of more serious crimes and served sentences of longer than one year. Because they have been convicted of more serious crimes and so may be assumed to be more dangerous to others and also because they have been incarcerated for a longer period of time and so may be assumed to face a harder time re-integrating into society -- the conditions for those on parole tend to be more stringent than for those on probation.
The level of oversight provided to those on probation or parole tends to depend on the severity of their crime, although there are also significant variations among jurisdictions and even among parole and probation officers. In general, a minimum degree of supervision may be required by law or by policy with higher levels of supervision added at the discretion of a judge or probation or parole officer. In general, the conditions that a probationer or parolee faces are designed both to keep the public safe as well as to keep the former inmate on the straight and narrow (
Andrews, & Bonta, 1994, p. 48).
The word "probation" means testing of something, and probation can be seen as a period in which an individual is tested by being free yet being required to follow certain rules. If the probationer succeeds at the "test" of probation, then he or she is considered by the criminal justice system to be safe to return as a full member of society. Some of the conditions of probation are almost universally true: For example, essentially all probationers are forbidden to possess firearms or other weapons and many have curfews (Rhine & Paparozzi, 1999, p. 27).
Most individuals on probation or parole are not supposed to "associate" with other former inmates, and many are required not to use alcohol, even though alcohol may not in any way have been involved in their offense. However, since alcohol since to reduce inhibition and increase impulsivity, it can prove to be a dangerous habit for an offender. Not only alcohol but most illegal drugs can increase the chance that an individual will re-offend, so many probationers and parolees are required to submit to random drug tests.
Of course, probationers and parolees, like the rest of us, are not supposed to commit criminal acts. Testing positive for an illegal drug like methamphetamines would therefore not only be a violation of the conditions of an individual's parole but would also be an additional and separate crime, which could return an individual to jail or prison on the probation violation and might also results in a new charge and a new trial.
Probationers are often required to participate in certain types of programs meant to rehabilitate them, especially as there is less and less rehabilitation attempted in prison itself. These programs can include psychological counseling, drug and alcohol abuse education and prevention, anger management, domestic violence counseling, or parenting. All of these programs are designed to help improve public safety and to minimize the chance that the individual in question does no further harm to his or her victims and family (Smith & Dickey, 1998. P. 28).
Other conditions of parole or probation depend much more specifically on the nature of the offense for which the person served his or her time. Sex offenders, for example, may be forbidden to have pornography in their possession. If their victim was a minor, they may be forbidden to have any contact with any children. Individuals convicted of acts of domestic violence may have a restraining order that forbids his or her coming into contact with the victim. Many sex offenders as well as individuals convicted of other crimes such as domestic violence or drunk driving are now outfitted with electronic tracking units so that their whereabouts can be pinpointed at all times. An individual who is supposed to keep a certain distance from his victim, for example, or a sex offender who is forbidden to come within a certain number of feet of a school might well be fitted with such a monitor so that authorities can be alerted immediately if he or she is in a place that is not permitted under the conditions of probation (Corbett, Fitzgerald, & Jordan 1998).
Whether or not such conditions actually do keep the community any safer is an issue subject to a great deal of debate, and many individuals within the criminal justice community believe that the current system of tracking former inmates costs far more than it gives in return. The following parole official was quoted in a Department of Justice report that questioned the efficacy of probation programs:
[For some] people in probation and parole, there's a real fear about reaching out to the community, about bringing the community into their work -- because [they] feel powerless and defeated, not necessarily with their day-to-day work with offenders but admitting that what they're doing is not necessarily working, and I think they're embarrassed by their inability to bring about some real change and there's a fear of looking inadequate. (Department of Justice, 1998)
The report goes on to note that community members generally want the same things that probation officers and others criminal justice professionals want, and even in many ways what felons themselves want. The public's desires include the following:
1. To be safe from violent crime
2. For offenders to be held accountable for their past and present actions
3. For offenders to prepare the damage that they have done to the extent that this is possible
4. For offenders to get whatever treatment that makes them safe to be members of the community
5. For the public, including the victim(s) to be involved in the process of determining how probation should be organized.
However, while there is a high level of agreement about the basic contour that probation and parole should take, the public generally wants all of these things accomplished immediately while criminal justice professionals (along with former felons) know that such a process takes time.
The above description of parole and probation conditions and programs might seem perfectly reasonable, and indeed monitoring felons tends to be an idea that receives a lot of support from community members who are frightened about what these individuals may do once they are released back into the…