Parole and probation in a prison nation

Nellis, M. (2002) Parole and probation in a prison nation. Probation Journal, 49 (2). pp. 97-105. ISSN 0264-5505 (

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I spent six weeks in July/August 2001 teaching summer school at Northern Kentucky University, and learning, at first hand as often as possible, something about criminal justice in this corner of the United States. Although Kentucky-based, the nearest urban centre was Cincinnati, just across the state border, and I had most contact with criminal justice people in Ohio. I was not doing systematic research, and all I assembled was a patchwork of impressions, lacking in comprehensiveness – but supplemented by reading newspapers and books that are not easily accessed in Britain. One of them, by Wall Street journalist Joseph Hallinan (2001), characterises America as a “Prison Nation”, because it imprisons (on average) 600 per 100,000 people, and because it is now building prisons to galvanise flagging rural economies as much as to combat crime in a coherent and effective way. With only 126 per 100,000 in prison, England and Wales is clearly not in the same league. However, with the highest prison population in Europe – the daily rate passed 70,000 in March 2002 – there can be no room for complacency, especially when reputable Sunday Times columnists suggest that we should emulate America: “perhaps the time has come to tolerate the idea of zero tolerance and build the jails to make it work” (Marrin, 2002). I offer these impressions to others who are also working to understand what it takes to keep criminal justice decent, and prison populations low.