LAND OF THE FREE? 5.5 million Americans incarcerated, on probation or paroled

Cumberland County Jail

The U.S. has a staggering 1.9 million people behind bars, but it is worth taking a look at the 5.5 million people under not only incarceration but also probation and parole to understand all of the mass punishment systems in what has been called “the land of the free.”

Altogether, an estimated 3.7 million adults are under community supervision (sometimes called community corrections) — nearly twice the number of people who are incarcerated in jails and prisons combined.

New Jersey has an incarceration rate of 341 per 100,000 people (including prisons, jails, immigration detention, and juvenile justice facilities), meaning that the Garden State locks up a higher percentage of its people than almost any democracy on earth.

Parolees in New Jersey will now get free legal representation at parole revocation hearings under a bill signed into law Tuesday by Lt. Gov. Tahesha Way, who replaced the late Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver.

Way was acting governor Tuesday because Gov. Phil Murphy traveled to New Hampshire for the day for a National Governors Association meeting.

Previously, parolees couldn’t get public defenders and were forced to rely on pro-bono representation from a list of lawyers maintained by the Judiciary. But they had no guarantee their assigned attorney would be experienced in criminal law or that their assignment would be timely, risking inequitable “consequences of great magnitude,” according to a Supreme Court-created panel that recommended the change last May.

The Office of the Public Defender, since its founding in 1974, used to represent parolees at revocation hearings, but that changed in 1991, when the state’s appropriations act expressly banned the use of state funds for that purpose. Every subsequent annual budget bill has included the same prohibition, according to a 2021 report in which the office called for reforms.

The new law comes nearly three months after Murphy signed another bill that ends public defender fees charged at the state level and voids liens imposed on clients who couldn’t afford to pay them.

The vast majority of people under supervision are on probation (2.9 million people), and over 800,000 people are on parole.

Yet despite the massive number of people under supervision, parole and probation do not receive nearly as much attention as incarceration.

To get a sense of how massive community supervision systems are, consider: If the population under probation and parole alone were its own state, it would be nearly the size of Oklahoma, and more populous than 22 other states, Puerto Rico, and D.C.

Staying in compliance with dozens of high-stakes, arbitrary rules is so unmanageable that experts call community supervision systems “a deprivation of liberty in their own right.”

Moreover, probation and parole are often pathways into incarceration from the community, with violations of supervision accounting for 42 percent of prison admissions nationwide.

Policymakers and the public must understand how deeply linked these systems are to mass incarceration to ensure that these “alternatives” to incarceration aren’t simply expanding it.

Dana DiFilippo of the New Jersey Monitor contributed to this story

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