This article was originally published by Prison Policy Initiative as “Guilty by association: When parole and probation rules disrupt support systems,” authored by Leah Wang
For the 3.7 million people on parole or probation in the United States, the very people who can best support their success are often unable to help because of supervision conditions that prohibit them from being in contact. Individuals reentering their communities on probation or parole often rely on support networks of family and peers who have been through similar reentry experiences.1 Though research supports the unique benefits of these social connections, many states actually prohibit people on supervision from this contact, under the false assumption that it will lead people into criminalized behaviors. These “association” restrictions — sometimes called “no-association conditions” — are isolating and costly to those on supervision. And the stakes are high: Failure to follow association restrictions can result in incarceration.
In prior work on probation and parole, we’ve referred to more widely known, difficult-to-satisfy supervision conditions — like securing employment and paying relentless fees— as examples of why supervision doesn’t “work” for so many people and too often results in incarceration for “technical” violations. In this briefing, we add to this work by compiling the most thorough research and data on association restrictions to date. We show that, despite their illogical foundations and documented harms, they are imposed on hundreds of thousands of people (and impact many others) at any given time. If states and local jurisdictions truly want people on supervision to succeed, they should acknowledge and ultimately abandon association restrictions.
Parole and probation conditions outlaw crucial relationships
Research suggests that association-related release conditions are common in parole and probation. These restrictions are relics of antiquated supervision systems that required people under their control to live virtuous lives, “be good,” and associate with “good people.” They generally prohibit interactions between people on supervision and large swaths of the population, such as those with felony convictions or others on probation or parole. As a result, people must steer clear of certain places altogether, producing a complex web of prohibited activities and relationships that make it even harder to find housing and work, arrange for transportation, participate in treatment programs, or otherwise succeed in reentry.
In most parole systems, association conditions are standard
While they’re not the most infamous supervision conditions,2 association restrictions are incredibly common across probation and parole systems, and impact hundreds of thousands of people. In a recent study, researchers found that over half of the 187 supervision programs they examined (including parole, probation, and electronic monitoring) in 2023 had some regulation about “who people can be around, talk with, or socialize with.” But these rules are especially entrenched in parole systems: A recurring census of standard parole conditions revealed that rules related to “undesirable associates/correspondence” have been used by an average of 30 jurisdictions over each of the six censuses, the first of which was in 1956.3
But when we look beyond standard conditions, it’s clear these restrictions are imposed almost universally. According to a 2019 law review article, nearly all parole jurisdictions (50 states, D.C. and the federal supervised release system)4 have association restrictions, whether they are standard or special conditions that could be imposed at any time by an authority such as a parole officer or judge. This valuable survey, which we’ve updated for this briefing, also identifies which categories of people are off-limits for individuals on supervision. (We’re thankful to Professor James M. Binnall for this work addressing association restrictions so comprehensively.) Using Professor Binnall’s categories, we found that some states go to great lengths to control these relationships:
- More than half of jurisdictions (29 of 52) have some form of association restriction that is standard. But even states where it wasn’t a standard condition (California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Minnesota) had an association restriction spelled out in its optional special conditions.
- Ten states have a problematic “discretionary” condition, where a parole officer, parole board, judge, or other authority can simply decide to restrict interactions with any individual or group of people they claim would undermine their client’s success.5
- Association restrictions most commonly prohibit contact with people with felony convictions (8 states) or people with any criminal conviction (10 additional states). Massachusetts and New York have restrictions on associating with anyone with a criminal record, which would apply to others on supervision and currently incarcerated people, too. It’s worth noting that an estimated 1 in 3 U.S. adults has a criminal record.
- Fourteen states explicitly restrict association with people described vaguely as “involved in” or “actively engaged in” criminal activity; this restriction often extends to places where criminal activity is or may be happening. Here we included vague restrictions like Mississippi’s “persons of bad reputation” and Alabama’s “persons of disrepute or harmful character.”
- Twelve states restrict association with currently incarcerated people and visiting correctional institutions generally, and ten states restrict other people on supervision. Given how many people in prison report a family history of incarceration,6 there are countless family visits and communications that are prohibited as a result of these restriction categories.
- Five states restrict association with purported members of gangs or other “criminal organizations,” who are already tracked in some cities in a separate effort to over-police neighborhoods of color.7
In many states, people on supervision can seek permission to associate with specific individuals in restricted categories — to visit a loved one in prison, for example — by asking their supervision officer or through a more formal hearing. But many may decide that these extra hurdles aren’t worth it to be told “no” or to have their interactions even more closely scrutinized. Overall, the landscape of association restrictions is highly repressive, leaving people to navigate reentry without valuable support.
How different states limit relationships for people on parole
|Standard condition?||Felony convictions||Criminal convictions||People targeted as gang members||Other people on supervision||Discretionary||Criminalized activity||Currently incarcerated people|
|Link to statute or agency document||People with a felony conviction||People with a felony or misdemeanor conviction||Includes language like “street gang,” “criminal organization,” “criminal gang member”||Includes parole, probation, other supervised release, or those in law enforcement custody||A catch-all provision allowing a field agent specifically to impose association restrictions on individuals||People targeted for alleged “illegal activity” or “controlled substances,” and people targeted for “disreputable character” or similar||Includes correctional facilities generally|
|District of Columbia||Yes||X||X|
|Federal (supervised release)||Yes||X||X|
Probation agencies ban certain people from interacting as well
Nearly 3 million people are on probation, the most common type of mass punishment. While we don’t have a complete picture of how the thousands of probation agencies nationwide approach association restrictions, research confirms that some of the largest jurisdictions impose them:
- Georgia, which has the largest probation population in the U.S. at over 347,000, requires people to “avoid persons or places of disreputable or harmful character.”
- The three biggest counties in Texas — Harris, Dallas, and Tarrant counties — also impose this condition on anyone under probation supervision.
- California, which had over 157,000 people on probation in 2021, imposes a standard condition wherein people must “refrain from becoming abandoned to improper associates.”8
If these conditions sound a bit archaic and vague, it’s because they are. Association restrictions needlessly complicate life in the community and should be eliminated from supervision rules.
Association restrictions are presumptuous and undermine social networks that are important for reentry
The senselessness and cruelty of association restrictions undermine the very purpose of supervision, which includes helping people get the resources and build the relationships they need to achieve stability in the community. Breaking down some of their biggest harms, we argue that:
- Association restrictions have it wrong and backward. The idea that someone with even a minor or bygone criminal history will have a negative influence on someone under supervision is unfounded. The myth of the “career criminal” or permanent criminal disposition has been busted, time and time again. Evidence shows that the opposite is true: people actually benefit from associating with those with lived experience. Highly regarded reentry organizations often use “mutual-help” or “credible messenger” models employing formerly incarcerated people as counselors and mentors to others navigating reentry. This supportive, non-judgemental model is shown to have positive impacts on both participants and staff.
- They are vague. Even when states are clear in categorically excluding whole groups of people, they are comically unclear about what it means to “associate” with those people. This nebulous language makes it difficult to know what counts as an association: Does an interaction with someone’s social media post, sending money through an app, or an accidental encounter at a gas station threaten public safety? It’s also difficult, then, for someone to challenge the legality of an association restriction when the courts can make their own interpretation. According to law professor Fiona Doherty, these restrictions are “purposefully — indeed, rigorously — unclear.”
- They force people on supervision to live in isolation and fear. Many people plan to live with or receive substantial support from family after being released from prison. But such relationships and living options may suddenly be off-limits due to an association restriction, forcing stressful and costly relocation. Some people on supervision have desperately turned to internet forums, reasonably confused about how their living situation could be prohibited, given the requirement to maintain housing. Their fear and lack of clarity puts them at risk of violating their terms of release and being subject to incarceration — but it may also feel risky to seek answers from their supervision officer. Loved ones, too, are pulled into enforcing and cooperating with these restrictions, impacting many people beyond those with an actual supervision contract.
- The millions of people in restricted categories make it nearly impossible to avoid prohibited associations. An estimated 24 million people in the U.S. have a felony conviction on record, while an estimated 80 million people have a criminal record of any sort.9 And nearly 2 million more people are currently incarcerated, which means they’re off-limits to people on parole in eight states, according to our analysis. Given that 44% of parole jurisdictions10 restrict at least one of these large categories of people, association restrictions have an outsized impact compared to the little criticism they’ve received.
- These restrictions disproportionately impact Black communities. We know that Black people are overrepresented everywhere within the criminal legal system, including parole and probation systems,11 and most likely those with criminal records.12 The sheer scale of overcriminalization, as well as geographic and social segregation that continues to hinder economic opportunity, makes it difficult to avoid regular contact with other people in restricted categories, tearing apart vital relationships and community ties for Black people in particular.
Unfortunately, we don’t know how many people face consequences for violating association restrictions. But as with other over-enforced conditions, association restrictions that lead to any time behind bars are an example of excessive and costly “technical” violations. And judges have imposed some extreme punishments: In Texas, a man on probation was sentenced to four years in prison for being seen near enough to a “crack house” to be in association with people who sell drugs or engage in other illegal activity, thus violating Texas’ condition to “avoid persons or places of disreputable or harmful character.” Another man, on federal supervised release, received 18 months in prison, followed by three more years on supervised release for speaking to a fellow member of his treatment group on the subway.
As supervision technology advances, association is an easy target for aggressive enforcement
Experts studying association restrictions and other onerous supervision conditions warn of the creep of new surveillance technology into carceral systems like probation and parole. Smartphones and location-tracking apps, for example, may supplement older methods like GPS-enabled ankle monitoring, and artificial intelligence (AI) promises “real-time” monitoring of people on supervision. Those engineering or hoping to deploy these technologies may view them as benign or even altruistic developments, but we see them as an ominous new frontier in the enforcement of supervision conditions that are already burdensome.
As law professor Kate Weisburd warns, “There is little doubt that improved surveillance capabilities enhance the ability of supervising agents to detect violations.” The recurring parole census mentioned earlier also sounds the alarm: An “ever-expanding” arsenal of technological solutions, they argue, will lead to “enhanced micro-surveillance” of people on supervision. New technology will undoubtedly appeal to lawmakers as an acceptable mechanism for moving people out of prisons and saving taxpayer money. But as widely understood extensions of carceral systems (rather than alternatives to incarceration), probation and parole shouldn’t be given invasive technologies that expand their reach into people’s lives.
If association restrictions go unchecked as surveillance technology expands, state and local lawmakers will continue to trap people on supervision in cycles of incarceration and being “free.” People who judges or parole boards have already deemed “safe” to release to the community should be able to decide with whom they associate and from whom they seek support, housing, or job opportunities. Association restrictions perpetuate harmful assumptions about people with criminal legal involvement, set people up for failure, and should be abolished as a condition of probation or parole.