Probation in the United States

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There are few if there are any, portions of the criminal justice system that act independently of the other parts. The probation system is no different, and it does not operate in a bubble. This means that it is affected by the courts, policy makers, jails/ prisons, judges, DA’s and every other member of the system. Just as criminal justice probation does not act independently of these other members of the system, these other players do not act independently of probation. This is all to say that probation is an extremely important and intertwined part of the correctional system and one that is used more and more every year. This high level of use of probation makes it one of the most important issues in corrections. The issue of probation is one that is important not only to those in the system or working within the system, but every member of the nation. Corrections costs money and has an emotional toll that does not stop at the offender, or the offender’s family. For these reasons and many more the issue of probation is an important one for everyone to be aware of and involved in.


Probation was created over a century ago to give people a second chance. This second chance was done because even a hundred years ago there were members of the criminal justice community who knew the detrimental effects of being imprisoned. These effects ranged from difficulties re-entering society, the stigma of having been in jail, loss of family, friends and work and the overall violence and criminalization of those who are incarcerated. The history of why we do what it is that we do in regards to probation is the first important factor to have a grasp on. This history shows how we ended up with the issues that we have today in probation and probation reform in the U.S.

Probation systems of the 20th century were representative of the attitudes towards crime and criminal justice in the first half of the century and even into the 1960’s. Those that committed crimes needed to be rehabilitated and helped in any way possible. This model seemed to follow more closely to the positivist school and eventually also came to be associated by many with the more liberal parties in the U.S. The backlash to this came during the 1970’s and well into the 1990’s. More effort was put on being “tough” on crime and bringing justice to the victims rather than helping the offender. The drug problem also led to a return to mandatory minimums regardless of an individual’s status as a first time offender or whether or not they had a compelling personal background. As with so many other things the two opposing sided of positivist/ liberal policies and classical/ conservative policies have started to move towards the center in the last decade.

Probation is one of the many tools individuals in the criminal justice system have to deal with offenders of every level of seriousness and severity. Simply put, probation is a period of supervision for those the courts feel need to be watched, guided and supervised for a set period of time. Sometimes it is used in lieu of jail time and other times it is used as a supplement to it. Probation can be used in many ways and for many reasons. Generally used as a method to keep certain low-level offenders out of jail, it is now also used to alleviate prison overcrowding by mid-level as well as serious offenders. The question many ask now is, why there are so many people on probation, and what does that mean for the rest of us. What it means for many is soaring court costs as well as skyrocketing prison and probation service costs. Many states now spend more on their criminal justice systems than they do on their education systems (USDOJ). Nearly 4 decades of “tough on crime” policies have created laws that have criminalized acts that before the 1970’s and 1980’s were not jailable offences (UIRR). This increasingly large set of new “crimes” have over the years led to an increase in the prison population, and the taxpayers have been footing the bill for these experiments. These increases in prison populations have culminated in the need to find alternatives to jail for many of these lower and mid-level offences. Today we have overcrowded prisons as well as overburdened and stretched out probation services.

Corrections in the United States has typically been subject to the whims and moods of the cultural, political and religious tones of the nation at a given period. Incarceration models exemplify these social influences, which can be seen through the use of penitentiaries that focused on religion and penance and prisons that focused on punishment and retribution. Along the way towards finding different methods of punishment and rehabilitation, the concept of probation was introduced to the corrections system. Probation, has in recent years, become an important part of the criminal justice system not only because it is an alternative to traditional incarceration but because more and more of the population of the United States are subject to it. Small crimes, as well as crimes that many traditionally were not charged with now end in probation because judges do not feel incarceration is appropriate. This large influx to the department of probation has caused surging numbers of individuals on probation. Incarceration may have been abandoned as a punishment for petty and small crimes, but probation seems to be an acceptable alternative. Not only are large groups of people being subjected to probation who otherwise would never have cycled through the system, but those in the prisons and jails are also more and more being given probation. Split sentences, early releases and intermediate sanctions often rely on the probation system to carry the responsibility of supervising this increasingly large number of probationers (Clear & Cole, 2011).

The effects of tough policies have created a new culture in the U.S.; this new culture is a prison culture that has grown exponentially in the last 40 years. This increased population of people inside prisons, jails and on probation and parole have led to shockingly high recidivism rates as well as skyrocketing costs (Lofquist, 1993). Mandatory minimums tied the hands of judges and institutionalized people that would never otherwise have had to see the inside of a prison or jail. With probation being such a prominent and highly used part of the corrections system many questions arise. How we got to our present probation systems and policies are essential in understanding why we do what we do. Much of the factors that have led us to our current situation are based in politics and public views on crime and criminals. These two groups feed off each other in a co-dependent way and constantly influence each other’s viewpoints and policies. But have these moods and opinions affected the probation system in a positive manner is the real question. We have nearly 100 hundred years of probation in the United States and within that time frame many different approaches have been made to the implementation of probation.

Individuals of the community should be aware of the consequences of policy on probation and corrections. This awareness is the strongest tool in the aid of positive and useful reform. More money is spent in most states on jails/ prisons than on schools and programs. This should be alarming and should concern everyone. The correctional community should be most concerned because they are at the top of the chain in terms of influence of policy reform. Jails and prisons cannot keep operating at their current capacity and the solution cannot continue to be building more prisons and privatizing prisons. At some point the question of importance should be, “why are these people in jail, or on probation in the first place”. Questions like this finally came to a head when the Supreme Court heard arguments concerning prison overcrowding and inmate healthcare in California’s prison system (Warren, 2010). It was ruled that the overcrowding was unconstitutional according to the 8th amendment. Just as important as the issue of care, cleanliness and constitutional protections was the issue of how California got to nearly double its occupancy in its prisons in the first place.

Slowly there has been in the last decade a slight return to the desire for more rehabilitation and mandatory minimums are being reconsidered in some cases. New methods of reform and tough policies are being used in the form of drug courts and mental health courts to give a medium to offenders. This is where we are now in regards to the probation system and the courts in the U.S. Each previous step has given us one additional useful piece that can be used in the future, most times in new ways. We have gone back and forth between harsh and lenient, liberal and conservative and classical and positivist and the system is still continuing to evolve moving forward.


Clear, T., & Cole, G. (2011). American corrections (9th ed.). 198.

Lofquist, W.S. (1993). Organizational probation and the U. S. sentencing commission.

Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science: White-Collar Crime. 525, 157-169

United States Department of Justice. 4

Urban Institute of Research and Records.

Warren, K.W. (2010). Probation Reform in California: Senate Bill 678, State of Emergency: The California Correctional Crisis. Federal Sentencing Reporter, 22(3), 186-193.