U.S. Versus the World: Parole/Probation Systems

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

In 2018,there were 4.5 million people on parole or probation nationwide. Probation and parole are privileges that allow criminals to either avoid prison or be released from prison after serving a part of their sentence. The goals of probation and parole are to rehabilitate offenders and help them be better people.

Although both are similar, probation is a part of the offender’s original sentence. On the other hand, parole is at the end of the offender’s sentence, allowing them to be released from prison earlier. In this article, the history of probation and parole systems will be explained. Furthermore, the U.S. probation and parole system will be compared to other countries’ probation and parole systems.

History of Probation

The origins of probation can be traced back to the English judicial practices during the Middle Ages. People received harsh punishments during this period, even for minor offenses. These punishments included death, banishment, and limb damage. For example, when King Henry VIII was ruling England at the time, over 200 unserious crimes faced death sentences. These severe punishments led to discontent within the English society, which eventually led to the gradual mitigation of such practices. For instance, offenders could purchase royal pardons, an official order given by the head of the country, to stop themselves from being punished for a crime. Other methods, such as abjuration and the benefit of clergy also offered offenders protection from extreme sentences. Abjuration is the rejection or abandonment of some citizenship or privelege, while benefit of clergy is the exemption of criminal prosecution.

One of the most common reforms during 1830 in the English punishment system was judicial reprieve, a practice in which the judge could temporarily suspend the imposition or execution of a sentence, under conditions of good behavior by the offender. However, a problem with judicial reprieve is that such cases did not have further prosecution, even though suspensions were only meant to be temporary.

Likewise, the United States exercised a similar power. From 1830 to 1894, the accused could have their sentence suspended or nullified if they had been wrongfully convicted. This use of judicial power could even be applied to cases with no miscarriage of justice to give defendants another chance. However, these suspensions were later challenged in a New York state court and the Supreme Court from 1894-1916, in which both courts held that judges do not have the authority to suspend sentences.

During the same period, John Augustus, a Boston cobbler, successfully convinced the Boston Police Court to release a drunkard into his supervision, rather than sending him to jail. Later on, John Augustus was able to get many more offenders released from imprisonment and into his custody. This incident stands as the origin of probation.

Following the actions of John Augustus, many thought the practice of probation was too lenient on the offenders and that official laws on probation were not easily formed. Eventually, however, probation became a law-recognized practice with The Probation Act of 1925. The Act provided a structured probation system in all federal courts except for those in the District of Columbia. It also permitted courts to appoint one or more officers to supervise offenders on probation. The first probation officer was appointed in 1927 in the state of Massachusetts.

History of Parole

The idea of parole was first put into practice in the mid-nineteenth century on Norfolk Island, Australia, where many English criminals had been transferred to face imprisonment until death.

Alexander Maconochie, the governor of the English penal colony in Norfolk Island, first eliminated this flat sentence structure to reform this system. Instead, he began a marking system, a disciplinary method where the convict would earn marks and credits for good behavior to achieve freedom. Modeled after Maconochie’s mark system, Sir Walter Crofton, an Irishman, initiated the Irish system where inmates went through three phases. First, they would go through solitary confinement. Then they would go through a congregate work period where the prisoner earns credits and points for good behavior. Lastly, the offenders would spend some time in prison with minimal supervision to test their dependability for the outside world and earned marks for good behavior. If the inmate got through all the phases successfully, they would move from solitary imprisonment to a free community.

Later on, Zebulon Brockway, a Michigan penologist, further reformed prison punishments. Brockway believed that instead of providing life-long imprisonment to offenders, they should be given a chance to display good behavior. Therefore, in 1876 he introduced a system to inmates between ages 16 to 30 that rewards ethical behavior and potentially shortens their sentences.

After 31 years, New York became the first state to have an official parole system. By 1942, all states and the federal government had adopted comprehensive parole systems. However, in 1977, 72% percent of inmates were released early from jail on parole, which began to draw national attention. Many thought that parole systems were either too lenient on high profile crimes or impacted by racial bias. Hence, the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 was passed to ensure that prisoners meet specific educational and disciplinary goals to earn freedom and reduce their sentence by 54 days annually.

How the U.S. Parole and Probation Systems Compare Globally

Firstly, some countries, like the U.S., do not have parole systems. As of now, 65 countries do not have a parole system in place. Instead, some countries — for example, Vietnam — grant amnesties after a prisoner has served 20 to 30 years. Others, such as Bulgaria and Sweden, petition the government for a pardon.

Overall, the U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country. As of 2016, the U.S. had a prison population of over 2 million people, while countries like Egypt and Argentina had prison populations of 8,000-106,000 people during the same year. Therefore, more people in the U.S. are on probation and parole compared to other countries. In 2018, 870,000 people in America were on parole, and 3.6 million people were on probation. On the other hand, 9,000 people in Canada were on parole and 95,000 people were on probation during the same year.

A significant difference between the U.S. probation and parole system and other countries’ probation and parole systems is that the U.S. is stricter on prisoner’s financial payments than other countries. In the U.S., those under probation and parole supervision have to pay a supervision fee. In a 2014 Human Rights Watch report, it was found that in some areas of the U.S., probation officers act like “abusive debt collectors,” forcing prisoners to either pay their fees or go to jail. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that offenders who can’t afford to pay their supervision fees should not be arrested, there are still concerns that some of the poorest convicts are still being imprisoned for failing to pay their fees. In the United Kingdom, in contrast, it is unlikely for offenders to be punished for failing to pay their fees.

Another difference is that the U.S. parole and probation systems are stricter when it comes to applying for parole. Federal prisoners in the U.S. are only eligible for parole if they committed their offenses before November 1987 and have served sentences of less than 30 years. Countries like China and Japan, on the other hand, are eligible for parole after 1013 years of serving their original sentence. However, in all cases, no one is guaranteed parole, even if they qualify.

Furthermore, the U.S. has different conditions than other countries when the offender is on probation or parole. No one person has the same requirements as another person in the U.S. Some common conditions include maintaining employment and a residence, avoiding criminal activity, and attending recovery meetings. But in other countries like Canada, every offender has a standard set of rules to follow, in addition to other regulations specific to the convict on parole or probation.

Lastly, offenders in the U.S. have more extended periods on parole and probation than other countries. Typically, the length of parole and probation in the U.S. is usually between one to five years. However, in countries like China and India, the duration of parole and probation ranges from three months to one year.

Other than these differences, the U.S. parole and probation systems are very similar to other parole and probation systems globally. For example, suppose an offender in the U.S. is eligible to apply for parole or probation. In that case, the Parole Board or the judge determines whether the prisoner can receive parole or probation during a court hearing. Then, the offender has certain conditions that they must follow during their time under supervision. If the convict violates these conditions, they will receive penalties decided by the Parole Board or the court judge. This basic structure of the system is very similar in New Zealand, with minor differences.

Through Teen Lenses: How do you think U.S. probation/parole systems differ globally?

“I believe that the United States’ system for rehabilitation in terms of post-sentencing isn’t very effective. While other nations tend to focus on giving their former prisoners a better chance after serving time, the United States has a long history of preventing formerly incarcerated people from assimilating back into society. When it comes to sexual predators and those convicted with short sentences of assault, particularly against women, the parole system works in their favor. It helps them get away with their crime, whereas particularly Black and brown men convicted of drug possession have their lives unfairly affected by the system. Our criminal justice system needs to be reformed and modeled after some of the other countries, such as those in Scandinavia that prioritize helping prisoners rather than punishing them.” Isra Qadri, 15, Rising Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, North Potomac, MD
“I’m not an expert on the topic, but from what I’ve read about it sounds as if the U.S. system is a lot more strict than those worldwide. In the U.S., it’s a lot harder to get probation or parole. Instead, overworked public D.A.s can’t make sure all of their clients, many of whom lack financial means to hire their own attorneys, cannot provide proper counsel to help get clients out of prison on probation or parole. From what it sounds like, in most other developed democracies, their justice systems are based on rehabilitation rather than punishment, so it’s a lot easier for criminals to get out on probation or parole.” Joel Shapiro, 18, Rising Freshman at Boston University, Rockville, MD
“It is well known that the United States has high mass incarceration levels compared to most other countries. Even if you compare the criminal justice system to most other industrialized countries with similar criminal justice systems, the United States still has one of the highest incarceration rates. As Hilary Clinton said in 2015, ‘It’s a stark fact that the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we have almost 25 percent of the world’s total prison population. The numbers today are much higher than they were 30, 40 years ago even though crime is at historic lows.’” Anonymous, 15, Rising Junior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Herndon, VA