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Probation population declines: Good, but not good enough

After decades of exponential growth, any news that the population under correctional control is decreasing is good news. But this progress is too slow.

by Wendy Sawyer, December 21, 2016

Today, the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced that the number of adults on probation fell again in 2015, marking the eighth year we have seen these numbers decline. This trend represents progress in the movement away from over criminalization.

But don’t get too excited about these probation numbers. 3.8 million people are on probation – still almost twice as many people as are incarcerated. And at the current sluggish rate of decline, it will take 20 years just to undo the increase in probation from the Reagan administration alone. (During that period of record growth, the number of people on probation more than doubled.)

Image charts the probation, parole, and incarcerated populations from 1975 to 2016. The probation population far exceeds other correctional populations. Note that the image was updated since the original post to add 2016 data.

As we have shown, probation is not always the alternative to incarceration it is made out to be. People are often sentenced to probation for minor offenses, but for those who can’t afford fees or make it to every appointment, this seemingly “light” sentence too often leads to incarceration.

After decades of exponential growth, any news that the population under correctional control is decreasing is good news. But this progress is too slow. To make a real dent in the country’s bloated correctional population, policy makers need to advance criminal justice and social policies aimed at reducing the number of people on probation.

Note: The graphic charting the growth of probation, parole, and incarceration over time was updated in December 2018 to include yearend 2016 data (the most recent data available).

Wendy Sawyer is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)



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