Racism and Probation in the ‘80s: It’s ‘History Repeating Itself’


Mass incarceration has become a hot-button issue in recent years, thanks to activists and scholars highlighting the impacts of criminalization on people of color. Now, a new study shows stark racial disparities in re-arrest rates for people on probation in the late 1980s.

The data suggests that looking to the past is essential for meaningful criminal justice reform.

The study, Probation and Race in the 1980s, was published in the journal Race and Social Problems. The author, Victor St. John, is a Ph.D. candidate at The Graduate Center and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, He’s also an adjunct professor at John Jay. 

The research looked at a sample of 12,368 people on probation in the United States during the late 1980s to determine how race and ethnicity impacted a person’s chances of being re-arrested. 

St. John found that black and Latinx people were being re-arrested at drastically disproportionate rates at that time — a discovery he said helps to close a large historical gap in similar documented research.

“The fact that African Americans were 270 percent more likely to be re-arrested for a felony while on probation compared to white probationers,” St. John said, “we know this disparity exists, but in this paper we’re saying this was happening 40 years ago. I really feel like it’s history repeating itself.” 

He analyzed data from the University of Michigan’s Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, which stemmed from a previous study that followed the more than 12,000 probationers (from 100 counties and 64 probation departments) from 1986 to 1989.

“The analysis reveals that there were significant associations with the race of a probationer and their likelihood for re-arrests while on probation,” according to the study.

Communities in which black and Latinx residents comprised up to 21 percent of the population were 100 percent more likely to re-arrest the probationers.  However, people seemed to be “safer from being re-arrested” for a felony while on probation when they lived in communities with a large population of people of color, St. John said.

Still, he concluded, “There’s still a cyclical connection that’s happening.”

St. John said that looking at the racial disparities in probation outcomes of the late 1980s could positively impact current efforts to address mass incarceration.

“It’s important that we take this information and we push for policy-makers and practitioners to examine data from the past to address the issues that exist today because of practices and policies from the past,” St. John told SUM.