Discourses of Mass Probation:

From Managing Risk to Ending Human Warehousing in Michigan

In recent years, the conversation over criminal justice in the U.S. has taken a seemingly dramatic departure, with policymakers favoring “smart” rather than “tough” on crime proposals. Combining risk management with a newly salient focus on fiscal costs, reformers argue that the risk posed by low-level, non-violent felons is not commensurate with the price of their imprisonment and that they should instead be diverted. Yet while risk logics have played a key role in contemporary penal practices, their development in official discourses remains hazy. This article traces this missing history, analyzing the discourses and practices of risk throughout the prison boom and today’s reforms (~1974-2014) in Michigan’s Department of Corrections. The analyses focus strategically on probation, the primary alternative sanction to prison. The results show that discourses of risk and cost-effectiveness emerged in the 1970s as resistance to the start of the prison boom and have been deployed by the department ever since to address the governing crisis du jure. Thus, risk serves as both an organizing framework and a (limited) mode of critiquing the carceral state.