Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Law Enforcement and Community Supervision Reform


The prison population in the United States has continued to fall for the past decade. This decline has been accompanied by reformers turning their attention from prison to community supervision systems. Under these systems, comprised of probation (usually but not always given as an alternative to incarceration) and parole (for prisoners granted early release), offenders are released to the community but intensively monitored through regular check-ins with probation and parole officers, drug and alcohol testing, and other forms of oversight.



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The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the purpose of community supervision is to “help individuals reintegrate into society as constructive individuals as soon as they are able.” However, thus far, these systems are failing to accomplish their objective: rates of supervision failure are unacceptably high. Everyone ought to have a stake in seeing these populations succeed, including members of law enforcement. In fact, they might have the biggest stake of all as law enforcement deal every day with the fallout of supervision failures in the form of increased crime rates and impacts on public safety.

The populations of the probation and parole systems that comprise community supervision dwarf that of the prison system, and together they constitute the largest segment of the carceral state. According to the most recent figures from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 4.5 million adults— or 2 percent of the adult population — are on probation or parole (the population reached its peak in 2007 at about 5.1 million). Supervision has grown dramatically in recent decades as courts have diverted defendants away from prison to cut costs and reduce overcrowding. Long terms of supervision, stretched far beyond what the evidence (discussed below) suggests is necessary to protect  against recidivism, have also added to the number of supervisees.

Despite its expansion, the supervision system fails in its primary goals of reducing recidivism and reintegrating defendants back into society. Nationwide, about a third of supervisees end up back in prison. According to the Council of State Governments, about 45 percent of prison admissions are the result of supervision failures; in 20 states, it’s more than half. A leading meta-analysis published in the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation in 2008 found that, as currently practiced, supervision systems have essentially no impact on reducing recidivism.

We think the police ought to care about effective reform of community supervision for three simple reasons.

First, effective, evidence-based community supervision reforms can free up resources that can be diverted to more pressing law enforcement priorities. According to the Council of State Governments, supervision failures (i.e., arrest and subsequent incarceration of a supervisee) cost states more than $9 billion annually. More than half of supervision revocations resulting in a prison admission are for technical violations, such as missing a meeting with the probation office, violating curfew, or failing a drug or alcohol test. These violations have little or no impact on public safety but cost more than $6.5 billion annually. This equates to approximately 5 percent of the total spend on law enforcement every year.

In too many states, probation and parole officers have too few tools to address noncompliance by supervisees; the choice is between verbal warnings or reincarceration. A more effective and cost-efficient supervision system would allow probation officers to impose a series of administrative sanctions which gradually increase in severity in order to foster compliance with supervision conditions. The state of Maryland, for example, has created a “graduated sanctions matrix” that lays out dozens of available sanctions that take into account the level of supervision (more stringent versus more relaxed supervision conditions), the seriousness of the underlying offense, the seriousness of the supervision lapse, and the supervisee’s history (for example, whether this is a first supervision violation or one of several). Making this change throughout the states would reduce incarceration rates, saving hundreds of millions of dollars.

The money saved from reduced incarceration after supervision failure could be reinvested into other law enforcement activities. For example, in 2010, California enacted SB 678, the Community Corrections Performance Incentives Act, which stated that counties that reduced probation revocations would receive 40 to 45% of the cost saved which they could reinvest in expanding evidence-based supervision programs. In the first year, probation revocations declined by 23% saving the state an estimated $179 million and allowing counties to reinvest $87.5 million into supervision programs. Likewise, after North Carolina modernized its supervision practices and reduced caseloads in 2012, it was able to hire 175 new supervision officers with the funds saved. We don’t yet have data identifying the criminal justice outcomes that resulted from these relatively recent reforms (though both of these states have participated in the overall decline in crime rates in the U.S.), but the financial savings are clear, and the decline in probation revocations alone suggests improvements in recidivism rates. It seems safe to suggest that supervision systems that help avoid the huge costs of incarcerating supervisees and permit reinvestment that expands the number of probation and parole officers contribute to public safety by making supervision more effective.

Second, reforming the system to divert low-level offenders out from under supervision more quickly would free up time for authorities to focus on high-risk supervisees and repeat-violators which would in turn improve public safety. The current supervision model — with long sentences, lengthy lists of standard conditions, and frequent testing and reporting for almost all supervisees — is both over- and under-inclusive.

It is over-inclusive in that it ensnares far too many people who are at no real risk of recidivating for too long. Probation and parole terms often run for as much as five years or longer, despite the fact that, as James Austin found in 2010 in the journal Justice Research and Policy, almost all supervision failures occur within the first two years. After those years, re-arrest rates plummet and there is no evidence that extending supervision terms beyond that period reduces recidivism. Furthermore, low-risk supervisees are often over-monitored and subject to overly harsh conditions that impede their reintegration back into society. More stringent supervision conditions, especially for low-risk offenders, do not necessarily result in increased public safety. The agency that oversees federal probation in the United States, the Office of Probation and Pretrial Services, conducted research on the effectiveness of supervision conditions that it discusses in its policy manual for supervision offices. That agency has concluded that overly harsh supervision conditions can actually backfire and cause criminal behavior, and that the best approach is to employ the “least intrusive means necessary to facilitate supervision goals.” This finding has been replicated by smaller case studies of state prisoners, for example in a 2011 doctoral dissertation by Wodahl and others who investigate the impact of intensively supervision on parolees in Wyoming, which find that “individuals who experience a greater amount of punishments in relationship to incentives have a low likelihood of completing” supervision successfully.

But this system is also under-inclusive. The massive number of cases resulting from over-inclusivity means that parole and probation officers are stretched too thin to be effective in supervising higher-risk individuals. Caseloads regularly reach 100 to 200 persons per officer or more. However, in 2012, Jalbert and Rhodes found that combining reduced supervision case-loads with evidence-based practices yielded better supervision outcomes: less non-compliance, fewer revocations, and increased rates of successful graduation from supervision. Reforming the system to divert low-risk and first-time offenders out from under supervision more quickly would free up time for officials to focus on high-risk supervisees and repeat-violators who need more attention from probation and parole officers.

Finally, evidence-based supervision reform can make communities and officers’ jobs safer. One of the aims of police activity is to create and maintain safer communities. A supervision system that cycles more than one-third of supervisees back into prison, often for technical violations that have little impact on public safety, is not creating safer communities. Getting beyond the “check-the-box” mentality that views successful supervision as little more than compliance with rules — one that instead assists defendants in keeping sober, finding stable housing, accessing educational and employment opportunities, and building positive relationships — could pay huge dividends in terms of reducing law enforcement costs and improving public safety. A smart and efficient community supervision system will seek to reduce recidivism rates by helping those who have been formerly incarcerated reintegrate into society. Since reducing recidivism means fewer costs and safer streets, reforming community supervision should be a law enforcement priority.

When supervision is too restrictive, too punitive and lasts too long, supervisees are set up for failure, not success. Law enforcement officers have a stake in preventing all of those outcomes — meaning they should be on the front lines of pushing for community supervision reform.