Guilty by association: When parole and probation rules disrupt support systems

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.

Someone paroled from prison or ordered to probation must navigate the world underneath burdensome and unrealistic rules. Association restrictions may prohibit people on supervision from communicating, working, or living with family, friends, or other community members with a criminal history. If an officer or judge finds they have violated this rule, they could be sent back behind bars. In many states, a parole or probation officer can cut someone off from “associating” with any particular individual at all, due to their wide discretion under state statutes and supervision contracts. (Image by Kevin Pyle.)

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.

“Standard” and “special” supervision conditions

Learn about the differences between the two

Parole and probation typically come with a set of “standard” conditions or rules that are mandatory for everyone regardless of their crime or circumstances. These often include obeying the law and maintaining contact with a supervision officer, but also may include irrelevant mandates like drug testing even for people whose conviction was unrelated to drug use. The number and scope of standard conditions varies widely by jurisdiction, but researchers have found an average of 21.9 standard conditions, with some states listing as many as 38 conditions that every person on parole must follow, or else risk incarceration.

There are often “special” conditions too, which are optional additions a judge, parole board, supervision officer, or other authority can impose at their discretion — and often at any point while someone is on supervision. In many jurisdictions, special conditions offer authorities carte blanche for setting nearly any rule imaginable. Some examples of special conditions include mandated treatment programs, a curfew, and restrictions on associating with certain other people, but they can also extend to bizarre rules regarding where one can sit inside a car, or becoming pregnant.

Standard supervision conditions in one jurisdiction can be “special” in another. We don’t know how often special conditions are imposed on top of a standard set, but it’s possible that people are subject to special conditions nearly as often: In a 2019 study of parole conditions, an employee of the Idaho Commission of Pardons and Parole admitted to the author that during her tenure, no parole agreement was ever issued without association restrictions, which are special there.

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

We examined state statutes and correctional agency documents for all 50 states, D.C., and the federal system to identify association restrictions in parole by category of restriction, denoting where these restrictions are standard conditions. Some states have multiple categories of restrictions, and some states have mandatory parole instead of (or in addition to) discretionary parole; we do not distinguish between the two. We credit Professor James M. Binnall’s Divided We Fall: Parole Supervision Conditions Prohibiting “Inter-Offender” Relations for carrying out this analysis in 2019 and conceiving of the restriction categories we used.
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
Alabama Yes X
Alaska Yes X X X
Arizona Yes X X X
Arkansas Yes X X X
California No X
Colorado No X
Connecticut Yes X
Delaware No
District of Columbia Yes X X
Florida Yes X X
Georgia No X
Hawaii Yes X X
Idaho No
Illinois Yes X X X X
Indiana Yes X
Iowa Yes X X X
Kansas Yes X X
Kentucky Yes X X
Louisiana Yes X
Maine No
Maryland No
Massachusetts Yes X X X X
Michigan Yes X
Minnesota No
Mississippi Yes X X X
Missouri Yes X X
Montana No
Nebraska Yes X X
Nevada No X X X X
New Hampshire Yes X X X
New Jersey No
New Mexico Yes X
New York Yes X X X
North Carolina No
North Dakota No
Ohio Yes X
Oklahoma Yes X X X
Oregon No
Pennsylvania No X
Rhode Island Yes X
South Carolina Yes X X
South Dakota No
Tennessee No
Texas No
Utah Yes X X
Vermont Yes X
Virginia No
Washington No
West Virginia No
Wisconsin No
Wyoming No
Federal (supervised release) Yes X X
Totals 29 8 10 5 10 10 14 12

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Even parole and probation officers find association restrictions counterintuitive

Research suggests it’s difficult for supervision officers to enforce a rule that makes little sense to them.

Recent research into the key players who set and modify conditions of supervision — like judges, parole boards, and supervision officers — suggests that, both in theory and in practice, association restrictions don’t increase public safety or reentry success. The Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice examined parole conditions in Iowa and probation conditions in a Kansas county and found that supervision officers know their clients have loved ones who fall into these “off-limits” categories. Though the association restriction is standard in both of these jurisdictions, the officers admit it’s harsh and ultimately impossible to comply with:

[D]oing all these assessments you’ll learn that 9 times out of 10 the people in an offender’s life are people who have been in trouble themselves too. You can’t expect them to go from these people in their life and just to cut everyone completely out, friends, family, or whatever.
probation officer in Johnson County, Kansas

Because lots of times it’s their own family, so telling them they can’t be around their family, or someone that they care about, or is supportive of them, doesn’t make sense. — parole officer in Iowa

In these instances, supervision officers either did not or could not remove these conditions. Instead, many reported that they simply did not enforce them. Of course, not all officers use their discretion this way, and the persistence of these rules in supervision means that people will be forced to navigate reentry without the crucial support of loved ones.

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.