Months before his death, Rayshard Brooks talked about his struggles with the criminal justice system and life outside of it. USA TODAY

Rayshard Brooks was aware of the flaws of probation and his words should be heeded since the system needs reform


The unjust killing of Rayshard Books by police after he was found asleep in a Wendy’s drive-through has us again rightly asking questions about systemic racism and use of force in policing. Compounding that tragedy is the reality that Brooks’ status as someone not fully free, because he was on incarcerate people for non-criminal acts, like using alcohol or having contact with a police officer. Brooks knew this and knew that his liberty and the life he had built was in jeopardy before a shot was fired.

The fear that probation and parole breeds 

For decades, probation and parole supervision have exacerbated the very real fear and mistrust that define Black and brown communities’ interaction with law enforcement. To better understand the day-to-day lives of people on probation or parole, try this thought exercise.

Imagine the police could come into your house whenever they wanted — no warrant, no probable cause. They dictate when you could travel out of the county, get a driver’s license or apply for a credit card. Police decide whether you could live with your wife or visit your best friend and have a beer with him. Imagine if police determined what time you had to be 真人百家家乐官网网站home every night, even when there’s not a city-wide curfew. And if they suspected you broke one of these rules, they could lock you up without a hearing, attorney, the right to confront witnesses or proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Sound far-fetched? Well, America’s hidden police force of probation and parole officers have these powers in surveilling almost 4.5 milliondisproportionately Black and brown people.

As commissioner of New York City Probation, I was alarmed to learn that probation officers could deprive people of their liberty for the slightest of infractions. It’s so bad that I witnessed two people voluntarily return to the notorious Rikers Island jail complex rather than continue on probation.

New York state parole, second in the nation in this injustice, jails people for an average of two months with no right to pre-hearing release for non-criminal violations. But it’s a nationwide dilemma. In 17 states, probation staff can mete out “swift and certain” jail terms administratively, without even going to court.  

JUSTICE Act: 100% more frequently than white people, even controlling for other relevant factors. 

Reforming probation 

Community supervision is grossly under-studied, but what we researched has not found that community supervision either reduces recidivism or incarceration — its two foundational goals. For example, the number of people on probation in New York City declined by 70 percent since the mid-1990s, all while crime and incarceration plummeted.

Since the pandemic, the majority of probation and parole departments surveyed said they stopped both in-person visits for people under supervision and arrests for technical violations. This surveillance dial-back prompted Susan Rice, chief probation officer of Miami County, Indiana to muse, “we all think we have to supervise these people and be drug testing them constantly and following them around. If we stop doing that, do they fall apart? Get arrested? Overdose? Will it really happen or will we see that they’re fine?”

I wonder, if we got rid of community supervision for some, or cut it in half for all, would anyone notice? Last year, 85 probation and parole commissioners agreed that “community supervision has now become overly burdensome, punitive and a driver of mass incarceration, especially for people of color” urging that the system have a “smaller and more focused footprint and value dignity, fairness, race and gender equity.”

What if we divest the $2.8 billion allocated to locking people up for technical violations, and invest it in community safety plans co-designed with people most harmed by community surveillance? Community residents would surely be more interested in, and creative about, safety in their own neighborhoods than even well-meaning government bureaucrats.

COLUMN: Columbia Justice Lab and former commissioner of New York City Probation.

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