Mass Incarceration and (Mass) Probation: A Policy Feedback Example or Different Strategies of State Control?

Michelle S. Phelps, Princeton University

Scholars of the penal field in the U.S. have had much to say recently about increases in state punitiveness, especially in terms of incarceration rates, yet there has been little written on the much larger absolute increases in probation programs or the relationship between probation and incarceration. While probation is often conceptualized as an “alternative” to incarceration, many sociologists have argued that increasing probation paradoxically leads to increased imprisonment. This paper analyzes supervision rates between 1977 and 2007 at the state level to explore the determinants of probation rates and to evaluate the potential causal relationships that bind probation and incarceration. The results suggest that probation rates have a small, but positive effect on incarceration rates, but that there is tremendous variability in terms of states’ penal strategies and that the economic and social determinants of probation are quite distinct from those of incarceration.

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Presented in Session 86: Demography of Punishment