The shadow of penal supervision

Mass supervision: Pervasive and concentrated?

In a previous post, I asked for some help in exploring ‘mass supervision’ in numbers — not just in relation to its scale, but also in relation to its social distribution. Well, I can now report that I spent most of the last week reading Michelle Phelps’ stellar work on mass probation in the USA and trying to do what I could to make sense of Scottish data and to see what sense I could make of these two case studies of probation and parole growth.

Now I know that a comparative analysis here would be something of a fool’s errand: the two countries are hardly comparable for all sorts of reasons that I will discuss in the relevant chapter of the book. There are also lots of technical problems in trying to look across different legal systems and datasets. That’s why I describe these as two illustrative case studies and not as direct comparators. That said, fool that I am, I can’t resist a little bit of comparison, if only to illustrate the complexity of deciding what counts as ‘mass’ in mass supervision…

Clearly, the Scottish prison population (about 7,500) and imprisonment rate (about 140 per 100,000) is low in comparison to the USA’s prison population in 2015 of 2,173,800 (Kaeble and Glaze, 2016) and rate of 677 per 100,000. Dramatic though it seems to Scottish eyes, the rate of growth of the Scottish prison population after 1980 also pales into comparison with the USA’s. Scotland’s prison population today is about 1.6 times that of 1980; the USA’s prison and jail population is at least 4 times larger[1].

However, these comparisons are reversed in the case of supervision. According to Phelps (2013a) the US probation population increased from 1.1 million to 4.1 million between 1980 and 2010; indicating an increase of about 4 times. Over the same period, the US parole population increased from around 220,400 to 875,500[2] — again, an increase of about 4 times. Over the same period, the annual number of community sentences in Scotland increased from under 3,000 to about 20,000 (Munro and McNeill, 2010); an increase of about 7 times. Figures X below provide more detailed evidence of trends since 2003.

The numbers quoted above refer to the number of new orders in Scotland, rather than the total caseload of supervisees. Unfortunately, no probation criminal justice social work caseload data is collated in Scotland. Since (a) a person can be subject to more than one order and (b) the average length of an order is longer than a year (currently 15.6 months), the total number of new orders seems a reasonable proxy for the population on community sentences. If that is the case, then the community sentence supervision rate in Scotland in 2015-16 stood at about 378 per 100,000 population. The total population on probation in the USA in 2015 stood at 3,789,400, equating to a probation rate of 1,181 per 100,000[3]. Thus, whereas the USA’s imprisonment rate is almost 5 times that of Scotland, its probation rate is less than 3 times higher.

Historical comparisons of rates of post-release supervision are difficult, both because of a lack of available data and because of significant changes in legislation in the early 1990s (see McNeill and Whyte, 2007), but it is likely that the numbers subject to post release supervision in 1980 would have been very low; by 2015-16 the population supervised post-release stood at around 2,500.

Figure X below provides data on trends in the post-release supervision population since 2005.

The slight increase overall in the numbers conceals a sharp decline in the numbers on (discretionary) parole licence from 876 to 445, and very significant rises in the numbers of recalled prisoners (that is, those whose release licences have been revoked) from 85 to 387, and in the number of people subject to forms of post-release supervision imposed by judges at the point of sentence (from 334 to 764).

So, what about the social distribution of supervision? The two charts than follow rank Scottish local authorities (left to right) by their share of the 20% most deprived zones in Scotland, plotting the numbers of Community Payback Orders and the post-release supervision caseload for each:

The trend-lines are as depressing as we might expect — in general, local authorities with a higher share of the most deprived communities have a higher share of the supervised populations. That said, the relationships look far from simple — with some higher deprivation authorities having relatively low supervised populations and vice versa. These fluctuations may reflect  the influence of particular local dynamics.  For example, differences in the criminal business of different courts, the idiosyncrasies of their cultures, the nature and quality of relationships between judges and social workers and the availability of services and resources locally, will all affect sentencing in general and the use of supervisory sanctions in particular, even within one small jurisdiction like Scotland.

That said, the big picture seems to be that in both countries — despite vast differences not just in scale and population dynamics, but also in history, culture, politics, economics and so on — the link between profound socio-economic disadvantage and punishment persists.  Is it too simplistic to say that  just as the US penal system exists in a deadly symbiosis with the ‘hyper-ghetto’ (Wacquant, 2001), so the Scottish system feeds on Scotland’s most disadvantaged post-war urban housing ‘schemes’.

We’ll see. Clearly, much, much more analysis is required — especially here in Scotland.  I’ll have more to say about this in the relevant book chapter, obviously!

[1] See:, accessed 19th January 2018.

[2] See:, accessed 19th January 2018.

[3] See:, Table 1, accessed 19th January 2018. The probation rate was calculated based on an estimate of the total US population in 2015 of 320.9M.