Mass Probation and Inequality

Race, Class, and Gender Disparities in Supervision and Revocation

Authored by: Michelle S. Phelps

Handbook on Punishment Decisions

Print publication date:  October  2017
Online publication date:  October  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138221475
eBook ISBN: 9781315410371
Adobe ISBN:


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Over the past 40 years, the number of adults in the U.S. under penal control massively expanded, with probation—or supervision in the community—serving as the predominant mode of formal supervision. This chapter addresses the role of probation in shaping race, class, and gender disparities in the criminal justice system. Relying on the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), I generate the first national estimates of probation supervision prevalence rates by age, race, gender, and socioeconomic status for the mid-2000s and early 2010s. Second, I incorporate data from Bureau of Justice Statistics surveys to compare the demographics of probationers to jail and prison inmates who were on probation at the time of arrest. The results show that while the race, class, and gender skew in probation is less severe than for incarceration, there are deep disparities in which probationers are ultimately incarcerated. Further, roughly a quarter of failed probationers are incarcerated for technical revocations of supervision (excluding violations for new arrests). The results call for a better understanding of how disadvantage and privilege facilitate unequal criminal justice outcomes and, more broadly, the role of probation in exacerbating social inequality.

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