Probation: The New Jim Crow

March 2, 2017

The numbers are astounding. One in 11 African American adults is currently under some form of correctional control.

 

According to the Pew Research Center, African Americans who live in communities which are predominantly black are more likely to end up on probation. While African Americans comprise only 13 percent of the total U.S. population, they account for roughly 9.2 percent of those who will ultimately serve a probation sentence. So, what is really behind these alarming figures?

 

Many criminal justice and human rights advocates believe that the criminal justice system in America is the newest form of Jim Crow. Jim Crown laws date back to the post-Reconstruction Era when the American South began restructuring itself following the legal end of slavery. As a result of Jim Crow, Southern blacks were prevented from economic, educational and social equality. The designated “separate but equal” status quo for black people persisted into the 1960s and ended with passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

 

Today, a large part of the problem with probation is rouge prosecutors who systematically abuse their discretion, creating a caste system in which African Americans become second-class citizens devoid of opportunities to work and become productive members of society. There is little concern for the negative consequences which mass incarceration and determinant sentences have on the black family and community. It is extremely difficult for African American men and women to find work while on active probation, and unfortunately the alternatives often involve illegal means to earning a living.

 

Studies show that the longer an ex-offender remains under correctional control, the more difficult it becomes for he or she to re-integrate into society. Many advocates see the unfair practices of those working within the criminal justice system as “Jim Crowism.” Probation is often compared to slavery because the freedom of a person on probation is largely constrained, as is control over their own lives. A probationer cannot leave the state without a “travel permit”, move from one local residence to another, or change jobs (if he or she can find one) without first getting permission from their probation officer. If a person who is serving probation is caught in another state without written authorization, the punishment may include revocation of the probation sentence. In addition, the probationer is under constant surveillance by local police and in many cases never informed of this watchful eye. In some jurisdictions, law enforcement scan the license plates of vehicles belonging to an individual on probation and keep tabs on their every move. 

 

One solution to the disproportionate number of African Americans serving lengthy probation sentences is criminal justice reform. Georgia is among a handful of states to undertake sweeping overhauls to its criminal justice system. Within the past six years, the governor of Georgia has signed two bills changing the way sentences are handed down. In other words, offenders who might otherwise receive long prison sentences for non-violent offenses, are now given alternate sentencing such as confinement to a halfway house or electronic monitoring. 

 

Prior to the new reforms, the state of Georgia led the nation in the number of African Americans on supervised probation.

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