Probation and Parole: History, Goals, and Decision-Making


Over five million people are under the supervision of the criminal justice systems in the United States. Approximately, 1.6 million are incarcerated in local, state, and federal institutions. The remaining, or almost 70 percent of those under the responsibility of the criminal justice system, are being supervised in the community on probation or parole. This means that at any one time a large number of U.S. citizens are in the community under correctional supervision. For example, nearly 2 percent or 3.8 million adult men and women in the United States were being supervised in the community on federal or state probation or parole in 1995 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1997).

While probation and parole are both considered community corrections and involve supervision in the community, they differ in other respects. Probation is a sentencing option available to local judges. Convicted offenders are released by the court to serve a sentence under court-imposed conditions for a specified period. It is considered an alternative to incarceration. In most cases the entire probation sentence is served under supervision in the community. The court retains the authority to supervise, modify conditions, cancel probation and resentence if the probationer violates the terms of probation. The responsible agency for overseeing probation can be either state or local. There are currently more than two thousand separate probation agencies in the United States.

In contrast to probation, parole is the early release of inmates from correctional institutions prior to the expiration of the sentence on the condition of good behavior and supervision in the community. It is also referred to as supervised release, community supervision, or after-care. The parole board is the legally designated paroling authority. The board has the authority to release on parole adults (or juveniles) who are committed to correctional institutions, to set conditions that must be followed during supervision, to revoke parole and return the offender to an institution, and to discharge from parole. Thus, probation is a front-end decision that is made prior to incarceration in a jail or prison, while parole is a back-end decision to release inmates from jail or prison.

Community corrections includes traditional probation and parole as well as other sanctions such as intensive supervision, restitution, community service, correctional boot camps, and fines. Frequently these alternative punishments or intermediate sanctions come under the jurisdiction of the agencies responsible for the administration of probation and parole.

Origins of probation and parole

Despite the differences between probation and parole, there are many similarities between the two types of community corrections. Both were initially developed as methods to mitigate the severity of punishment.

The origin of probation. Probation as it is known today can be traced to the use of several judicial practices exercised in English and later, American courts. "Release on recognizance" or bail, for example, allowed defendants who agreed to certain conditions of release to return to the community to await trial. After setting bail, judges sometimes failed to take further action (Abidinsky). Thus, similar to modern-day probation, defendants were released to the community conditionally. If they failed to meet the condition of release, they were faced with the threat of revocation. And in some instances, they were spared further contact with the criminal justice system.

In English courts, judicial reprieve empowered judges to temporarily suspend either the imposition or execution of a sentence in order to permit a defendant to appeal to the Crown for a pardon (Abidinsky; Allen et al.). Although suspension was intended to be temporary, further prosecution of such cases was sometimes abandoned (Allen et al.). Judges in the United States exercised a similar power, enabling them to suspend the sentence of a convicted defendant if justice had in any way been miscarried. The use of judicial power to suspend a sentence was extended to cases in which there existed no miscarriage of justice. Sentences were suspended seemingly to give defendants another chance. Documentation of this practice in Boston dates back to 1830. Such suspensions were challenged near the turn of the twentieth century in a New York state court (1894) and later in the Supreme Court (1916). Both courts held that absent a legislative directive judges did not possess the authority to suspend sentences.

During roughly the same time period, a shoemaker-philanthropist in Boston, named John Augustus, began the practice of bailing offenders out of court and assuming responsibility for them in the community. Bailing hundreds of offenders between the years 1841 and 1859, John Augustus is most often credited as being the founder of probation in the United States. Augustus bailed the offenders out after conviction. As a result of this favor and with further acts of friendliness such as helping the offender obtain employment and aiding the offender's family in other ways, the offender was indebted to Augustus and was willing to abide by agreements. After a period of supervision in the community, the bailed offenders returned to court armed with Augustus's sentencing recommendations. Due to his efforts John Augustus's charges were typically spared incarceration.

John Augustus's probation bears much resemblance to probation as it is practiced today. Augustus took great care in deciding which prisoners were promising candidates for probation. He considered the person's "character," age, and factors that would impact the offender after release. In dubious cases, he required the offender to attend school or to be employed. Thus, Augustus's activities provided the origins for the presentence investigation as well as common conditions of present-day community supervision such as education or employment.

Not long after John Augustus published an account of his work in 1852, the Massachusetts legislature in 1878 passed a bill authorizing the city of Boston to hire a probation officer (Abidinsky). The practice of probation spread through the state of Massachusetts and was later adopted by numerous states around the turn of the twentieth century. Between 1897 and 1920, for example, twenty-six states and the District of Columbia passed adult probation statutes (Champion). By 1927, all states except Wyoming had adopted some type of probation law for juveniles. However, probation was not available for all adult offenders in the United States until 1956.

Regardless of whether the origins of probation are traced to judicial reprieve or to the work of John Augustus, it is clear that the guiding philosophy of probation was rehabilitation. John Augustus leaves no room for doubt, stating: "It became pretty generally known that my labors were upon the ground of reform, that I confined my efforts mainly to those who were indicted for their first offence, and whose hearts were not wholly depraved, but gave promise of better things . . ." (Augustus). Probation implies "forgiveness" and "trial," or a period during which offenders may prove themselves capable of obeying the law and abiding by society's norms. Court opinions as well as state statutes generally affirm that the overarching purpose of probation is rehabilitation (Brilliant).

Origins of parole. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century most offenders were sentenced to flat or determinate sentences in prison. Under this type of sentencing, an offender received a specific amount of time to serve in prison for a specific crime. This created a major problem when prisons became crowded. Governors were forced to issue mass pardons or prison wardens had to randomly release offenders to make room for entering prisoners.

Credit for developing early parole systems is usually given to an Englishman, Captain Alexander Maconochie, and an Irishman, Sir Walter Crofton. In 1840, Maconochie was appointed governor of the notorious English penal colony at Norfolk Island off the coast of Australia. At the time, English criminals were being transported to Australia and those sent to Norfolk Island were considered "twice condemned"; they had been shipped to Australia from England and from Australia to the island. Conditions were so bad that, allegedly, men who received reprieves from the death penalty wept. The first thing Maconochie did was to eliminate the flat sentence structure used in Norfolk at the time of his arrival. Instead of requiring convicts to serve their sentences with no hope of release until the full sentence had been served, Maconochie initiated a "mark system" whereby a convict could earn freedom by hard work and good behavior in the prison. The earned marks could be used to purchase either goods or a reduction in sentence. Prisoners had to pass through a series of stages beginning with strict imprisonment through conditional release to final freedom. Movement through the stages was dependent upon the number of marks accredited.

Like Maconochie, Sir Walter Crofton believed the length of the sentence should not be an arbitrary period of time but should be related to the rehabilitation of the offender. After becoming the administrator of the Irish Prison System in 1854, Crofton initiated a system incorporating three classes of penal servitude: strict imprisonment, indeterminate sentences, and tickets-of-leave. This indeterminate system or Irish system, as it came to be known, permitted convicts to earn marks to move from solitary confinement to a return to the community on a conditional pardon or ticket-of-leave.

Zebulon Brockway, a Michigan penologist, is usually credited with initiating indeterminate sentences and parole release in the United States. Similar to Maconochie and Crofton, Brockway believed inmates should be able to earn their way out of prison through good behavior. Thus, they should receive a sentence that could vary in length depending upon their behavior in prison. In his opinion, this had two advantages. First, it would provide a release valve for managing prison populations. Second it would be valuable in reforming offenders because they would be earning release by demonstrating good behavior.

Brockway had the opportunity to pioneer this proposal into practice in 1876 when he was appointed superintendent of Elmira Reformatory for youthful offenders in New York. Inmates at Elmira were graded on their conduct, achievement, and education. On the basis of their behavior in the reformatory, they were given parole. Volunteer "guardians" supervised the parolees and submitted written reports documenting their behavior in the community. A condition of the parole was that the offender report to the guardian each month.

Thus, by the turn of the century the major concepts underlying parole were in place in the United States: (1) a reduction in the sentence of incarceration based on good behavior in prison; (2) supervision of the parolee in the community; and (3) indeterminate sentences. By 1901, twenty states had parole statutes and by 1944, every jurisdiction in the United States had some form of parole release and indeterminate sentencing.

Changing goals of community corrections

Over the past thirty years, there have been major changes in the theoretical model guiding the practice of community supervision. During the twentieth century, most of the focus of probation and parole had been on the rehabilitation aspects of community supervision. However, since the 1960s, major changes have occurred in correctional philosophy and this has had a dramatic impact on the goals of community supervision.

Rehabilitation model. As described earlier, probation and parole were originally conceived in humanitarian termsas a second chance or an opportunity for reform. Not surprisingly, the enactment of many community supervision statutes coincided with the Progressive period (19001920) in correctional history. Progressive reformers dismissed penal policies of the previous century as prohibitively rigid and advocated the adoption of the "medical model" (or "treatment" model) in conjunction with indeterminate sentencing. Deviant behavior was thought to be different for each offender. These individual differences were related to the particulars of an offender's life history either due to faulty environmental conditions or maladapted psychological mechanisms (Rothman). As a result, an attempt was made to individualize criminal justice procedures. In the presentence report the probation officer (social worker-expert) would diagnose the problems and this would be used to individualize the sentence.

Correctional practice was dominated by the rehabilitative ideal through much of the 1960s. During this period community supervision officers assumed the responsibility of changing offenders. Attention focused on the offender, not the offense, in an attempt to prevent future crimes. Officers possessed considerable discretion, as well as the power to utilize coercive means if deemed necessary, to further the process of rehabilitation (O'Leary). Consistent with the medical model, the presentence reports contained the "diagnosis" and prescribed the "treatment" necessary for a "cure." After sentencing, classification systems were used to identify and plan for the appropriate management and treatment of the offender. Parole boards would determine when the offender was "cured" and ready for release. It was the job of the supervising officer to counsel probationers and parolees as well as to ensure that the suggested interventions were in fact being realized.

The philosophy of the Progressive movement remained largely unchallenged until the early 1970s at which time it became the target of fierce attack. The assumptions of rehabilitation as a preeminent goal for sentence were questioned (Thomson). Critics such as Fogel (1975) and von Hirsch (1976) argued that the indeterminate sentences based on perceived offender characteristics and coerced involvement in rehabilitative programs were unethical and immoral.

In addition, empirical evidence widely disseminated in the mid-1970s cast doubt on the efficacy of rehabilitation (Thomson). In 1975, for example, Lipton, Martinson, & Wilks's evaluation of correctional treatment programs was published, leading to the oft-quoted, though overstated, claim that "nothing works." The demise of the rehabilitative ideal in theory resulted in modifications of probation practice, although by no means the wholesale abandonment of rehabilitative orientations. Empirical research argued that treatment programs were effective under certain conditions, for example, appropriate target groups, and properly implemented programs was published not long thereafter (see Ross & Gendreau) but such research did not overcome the popular cry of the period that "nothing works."

Neo-classical models

The immediate theoretical successors to the rehabilitation model of community supervision were grounded in the neoclassical assumptions of "volition, equity, proportionality, and fairness" (Thomson). Neoclassical models such as the "just deserts" model or the justice model emphasized the proportionality between crime and punishment, diverting attention from the offender back to the offense. Proponents opposed to the individualization of penal sanctions raised fundamental questions about the equity of the rehabilitation model. For example, Kay Harris, a justice model advocate, posed the question of whether it was fair to sentence one offender to three years of probation with the requirement to abstain from alcohol, earn a high school diploma, and obtain employment, while another offender guilty of the same offense but of higher socioeconomic status is given a shorter term with no special conditions.

In contrast to the rehabilitation model, offenders sentenced under a neoclassical sentencing scheme are punished for what they have done in the past, not for what they are likely to do in the future. The idea was to develop a system in which the exact, fair and just penalty for a crime is clearly articulated in advance and uniformly applied to all (O'Leary). Models of community supervision that fall under the rubric of neoclassicism include just deserts, retribution, commensurate deserts, and the justice model (Thomson).

Another important critique of the rehabilitative model articulated by justice model proponents is the tendency of the rehabilitative model to treat persons as if they were objects (Harris). The justice model views punishment as a kind of debt owed by offenders because of the crime they have committed; the treatment model sees it as a means of influencing offenders' future behavior.

While neoclassical reformers joined by other anti-Progressive groups have been largely successful in replacing indeterminate sentencing schemes with determinate ones, their impact on the actual practice of community supervision has been far less profound. Most supervising officers continue to do what they had always done. There were, however, changes in the sentencing process. Many jurisdictions passed laws to eliminate parole and return to the early flat or determinate sentences. Furthermore, to eliminate discretion and disparity many jurisdictions developed sentencing guidelines to be used by judges to determine appropriate sentences for offenders. Using the severity of the crime and the history of past convictions, the guidelines gave judges recommendations about the appropriate length of sentences.

Incapacitation/control models. The reluctance to implement models of probation grounded in neoclassical ideals may be attributed to several factors that contributed instead to the adoption of incapacitation or control models of community supervision in the 1980s. For example, according to David Rothman the neoclassical schemes were unpersuasive because they failed to address crime control concerns. The argument in support of the justice model focused on equity of sentences not on controlling crime in the community. Further, the exploding prison populations and skyrocketing correctional costs led to increasing numbers of felons being released early from prison or placed on probation caseloads (Petersilia, 1990). As a result, feelings of vulnerability to crime were intensified.

Empirically, one well-known study of felons sentenced to probation in California revealed that 65 percent of the sample (N=1,672) were rearrested and 51 percent were convicted of new crimes during a forty-month follow-up period (Petersilia and Turner). Replications of the study in other jurisdictions produced results that proved less cause for alarm, however (e.g., Clear et al.). Nevertheless, the movement to more effectively control offenders during community supervision gained considerable momentum throughout the 1980s.

Ultimately, the preeminent philosophical rationale for sentencing shifted from the neoclassical assumptions of the 1970s to a preference for incapacitation and control limited by the principle of just deserts. The just desert model failed to address crime control concerns and most likely this led to its demise as a widely accepted sole purpose of sanctioning. Another old-fashioned purpose for sentencing emergedthe notion of incapacitation. From this perspective, sanctions are used to control offenders so they cannot continue to commit crimes. Ideally, offenders would be locked away in prisons so they would be unable to commit crimes.

One obvious by-product of the new sentencing philosophy has been the reemergence of intensive supervised probation and parole programs (ISP). First implemented in the 1960s, the early ISPs were attempts at discovering the caseload size that would maximize the intensity of supervision. Intensity was assumed to be related to successful outcome. The second wave of ISPs surfaced in the mid-1980s despite the less than enthusiastic findings of the earlier movement.

Without doubt, the new ISPs clearly demonstrate the shift toward control-oriented probation. The Texas ISP manual is particularly illustrative with its focus on more surveillance, more control, and more contacts than traditional supervision. The emphasis of this ISP program is on offender control. Similarly, Harland and Rosen (1987) delineate the primary goals of ISP programs as minimizing the risk that probationers will reoffend or breach other conditions of their release, by restricting their opportunity and propensity to do so. ISP's goals are primarily incapacitation and deterrence through the intensive regulation and monitoring of offenders' whereabouts and conduct, and corresponding increased threat of detection and strict enforcement of consequences in event of violations.

The shift in the philosophy/practice of community supervision came at a time when the institution of probation was considerably demoralized (Tonry). Not only was probation publicly perceived as merely a "slap on the wrist" (as it has been by some since the days of John Augustus), faith in the ability of community supervision to rehabilitate had slowly eroded. The reemergence of ISPs and the control philosophy in general, therefore, seemed to have given probation and parole administrators a chance to rebuild the credibility, influence, and material resources for probation and parole (Tonry).

Probation and parole decision-making

Probation and parole agencies have always been responsible for two functions. First, the agencies must assist with the decision process. For probation officers this is the investigative aspect of their work and it involves assisting the court in the decision to sentence to probation in lieu of a prison sentence. For parole, the decision must be made to release an inmate from prison. The second responsibility of both agencies is to provide supervision for those offenders who are judged suitable for release to the community.

The decision to grant probation. The majority of individuals convicted of a crime are not given a prison sentence. Fifty-four of every one hundred felony arrests result in a conviction. Of those convicted, twenty-two are given a probation sentence, eighteen a jail sentence and fourteen are sent to prison (Boland, Mahanna, and Stones). Community corrections officials are critical players in these sentencing decisions. They must assess the level of risk offenders present to the public safety and make recommendations to the court about the appropriate sentence.

Probation officers often begin the investigative process during the pretrial period by examining an offender's background and history to assist in determining whether a defendant can safely be released on his own recognizance or bail. The report from the officer is frequently the primary source of information the court uses in this decision. At this point the court may defer adjudication or offer pretrial diversion and require probation supervision.

Once an offender is convicted, the probation officer prepares a presentence investigation report (PSI). The PSI is the major source of information on which courts base sentences. The primary function of the PSI report is to provide the sentencing court with timely, relevant, and accurate data about the offender. Such information is used to determine the sentence and classify offenders as to risk and therapeutic needs. The information is used to plan programming in institutions and in the community, to set conditions of supervision, and for release planning.

In determinate-sentencing jurisdictions the statutes specify similar sentences for offenders convicted of similar offenses. The PSI in these jurisdictions places the emphasis on offense-based reports where the dominant focus is on the offense and the offender's culpability in the offense. Where the court uses sentencing guidelines to determine the appropriate sentences the emphasis of the report is on providing verifiable information on the defendant's criminal record and aggravating or mitigating circumstances. Unlike the PSI provided by the indeterminate-sentencing jurisdictions, the primary focus is on the crime and not the criminal.

Typically, the PSI includes information on the seriousness of the crime, the defendant's risk for recidivism, the defendant's circumstances (living arrangement, employment, family), the legally permissible sentencing options, and a recommended sentence. Today with the increased concern with victim issues, the PSI may contain a victim impact statement that describes the impact of the offense on identifiable victims or the community.

Over 90 percent of all felony cases are eventually resolved through negotiated pleas so the major decision of the court is whether or not to imprison the offender. The PSI is critically important in this regard. Research has shown that the judge's knowledge of the case is limited to the information contained in the PSI. Furthermore, there is a high correlation between the recommendations provided by the probation officer in the PSI and the judge's sentence. Such recommendations are accepted between 65 and 95 percent of the time.

Eighty percent of all adults convicted of misdemeanors and 60 percent of all adults convicted of felonies are sentenced to probation or a combination of probation and jail. Thus, two-thirds of all convictions result in a sentence of probation. Research shows that people are less likely to be given probation if they: have more conviction counts, have more prior convictions, were on probation or parole at the time of arrest, were drug addicts, or used a weapon in the crime or seriously injured victims (Petersilia and Turner).

For those who receive probation, the court must also decide how to impose the sentence. Commonly, the judge gives a jail or prison sentence and then suspends the sentence in favor of probation. The jail or prison term is held in abeyance to be used if the offender fails to abide by the conditions of probation. About 50 percent of all probations sentences are suspended in this way (Latessa and Allen, 1997). The judge also imposes conditions that the probationer is required to follow during the community supervision.

Parole Release. The parole board (or parole commission), an administrative body, is empowered to decide whether inmates shall be conditionally released from prison prior to the completion of their sentence. The board is also responsible for determining whether to revoke parole and to discharge from parole those who have satisfactorily completed the terms of their sentence. In most jurisdictions, once the parole board makes the decision to grant parole, the responsibility for supervision in the community is turned over to parole officers who are supervised by the department of corrections.

The decision to grant parole is usually based on a review of the individual offender's case file (including the PSI) and an interview with the inmate. Eligibility for parole is determined by statutory requirements and is usually based on the completion of the minimum sentence less any good-time credits earned during incarceration. Technically, parolees are still prisoners who can be recalled to serve the remainder of their sentence in prison if the parole board decides they have not fulfilled the terms of their release.

Parole boards have traditionally had great leeway in deciding when to grant parole. During the hearing stage when the board met with the inmate they were expected to observe whether the prospective parolee demonstrated his or her rehabilitation, a willingness to accept responsibility, and self-understanding. Decisions were not based on formally articulated criteria or policies but on subjective and intuitional judgments of the individuals on the board. Few courts have reviewed parole decision-making and those that have appear to agree with the contentions of paroling authorities that to impose even minimal due-process constraints on the decision-making process would interfere with the board's goals of diagnosis and prediction (Cromwell and Del Carmen).

Most parole boards appear to accept an incapacitation or a modified justice model when making release decisions (Petersilia, 1998). They reported that the single most important factor they considered in the release decision was the nature of the current offense (Runda, Rhine, and Wetter). Following this they considered any history of prior violence, prior felony convictions, and possession of a firearm during the crime. These indicators of dangerousness were used to determine how much time an offender should serve prior to parole. Board members did not consider any factors related to rehabilitation or program participation to be important to consider in making parole decisions.

Critics of parole release decisions characterize the system as arbitrary and capricious. This is one of the reasons some jurisdictions have abolished parole. Other jurisdictions have instituted guidelines to be used to structure decisions without completely removing discretion. The parole guidelines used by the U.S. Parole Commission for making parole release decisions served as a model for parole guidelines developed in many other jurisdictions. The commission developed a system for decision-making based on the seriousness of the offense and the risk of recidivism. An actuarial device, the Salient Factor Score, was used to determine the potential risk of a parole violation. Decision-makers then use the guidelines to determine the customary time to be served for a range of offenses based on the severity of the offense. Decision-makers may deviate from the guidelines but they are required to explain the specific factors considered in the decision to override the score. Other jurisdictions have developed "risk assessment" or prediction instruments to assist parole boards in making decisions about release.

The move toward the justice model of corrections and the use of incapacitation has led to questions about the viability of parole, but for different reasons. Justice advocates argue that the indeterminancy inherent in the parole system is unfair because the board must make decisions based on what will occur in the future. Furthermore, they assert it is impossible to tell when an offender is rehabilitated. Incapacitation advocates also argue against parole. From their point of view, a sentence to prison prohibits an offender from committing more crimes in the community; parole release does not. Both of these perspectives have been influential in changing sentencing in many jurisdictions, and in the past thirty years sentencing changes have dramatically affected the use of parole. Prior to 1975 sentencing codes of every state had some form of indeterminancy. Since then, every state in the nation has revised, replaced, or seriously considered determinate sentencing and the abolishment of parole (Petersilia, 1998). This has led to a dramatic decline in the percent of state prisoners released through discretionary parole (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1996). In 1977 over 70 percent of offenders released from prison were released on parole. By 1994, this was reduced to 37 percent. An increasing percent of the releases were through mandatory release and expiration of sentence.

Recent trends

Increasing rate of revocations. There is some evidence that both the number and rate of revocations have increased and these have had a significant impact on prison and jail populations (Parent et al.). For example, in 1988 more than 60 percent of Oregon's prison admissions were due to probation or parole revocations. Furthermore, two-thirds of the prison admissions in Texas in 1989, and 60 percent of California's prison admissions, were violators (Parent et al.).

Parent and colleagues note that while the increase in probation/parole populations alone might account for the increase in revocations, interviews with practitioners reveal that in some states the rate of revocations has increased as well. Increased rates of revocations have been attributed to many factors including: (1) the shift toward control-oriented practices of community supervision; (2) the law-enforcement background of new probation/parole officers (as opposed to the social work background of the past); (3) an increase in the number of conditions of probation; (4) improvement in the methods of monitoring violations; (5) the more serious offender placed on community supervision caseloads; and (6) an increase in probation and parole caseloads (Parent et al.).

Empirical data on technical violations. While data collected over time is not readily available, the largest follow-up study of felony probationers in the United States revealed that a substantial proportion of probationers fail to successfully complete their sentence (Langan and Cunnif). For example, within a three-year follow-up period, 62 percent of a sample of 79,000 felony probationers had been either arrested for another felony or had violated a condition of probation resulting in a disciplinary hearing (Langan and Cunnif). Thirty percent of those had both been arrested and had a disciplinary hearing, 13 percent had only been arrested, and 19 percent had only a disciplinary hearing. Furthermore, 46 percent of the sample were ultimately incarcerated. Of those probationers who were incarcerated, 35 percent were incarcerated for committing only a technical violation (Langan and Cunnif).

In contrast, however, Clear and colleagues' evaluation of 7,501 felony and misdemeanant probationers terminated from six probation agencies revealed that approximately onequarter of the probationers committed violations, half of which were violations of technical conditions of supervision. Further, they found that most violators misbehaved only once. Therefore, the majority of probationers successfully completed their sentence without incident. In short, their study seemed to refute the assumption that due to early release and diversion from prison, the probation population has become increasingly dangerous.

The recidivism rates for parolees are even higher than the rates of probationers. Beck and Shipley (1989) examined the recidivism rates of 108,580 men and women who were released from jail in eleven states. They found that 62 percent had been rearrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor within three years of release and 41 percent had been returned to prison.

Innovative responses. In response to the observation that increasing numbers of offenders are having parole revoked during community supervision, many jurisdictions are reexamining their revocation procedures (Parent et al.). A major development is the structuring of discretionary decision-making, consistent with the general trend in criminal justice. The goal of the structure is to give officers concrete guidance so that their choices become more certain and uniform without removing all discretion. Structure is incorporated into the decision-making by written policy giving the goals of revocation and specifying which violations are serious enough to result in revocation procedures. Behaviors that warrant alternative sanctions are also identified. Thus, agencies make it clear to officers that violations are a routine part of supervision that can be responded to in a variety of ways.

Some jurisdictions have expanded the range of sanctions available to officers so that officers are not forced to choose between sanctions that are too harsh (a return to prison) and sanctions that are too lenient. Other jurisdictions have developed intermediate sanctions specifically for probation or parole violators. For example, Georgia has developed a correctional boot camp for technical violators of supervision. The violators are required to complete ninety days in the boot camp before returning to the community.

Research assessing the effectiveness of community corrections

As noted above the recidivism rates for those on probation and parole are relatively high. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics 43 percent of the felony probationers and 62 percent of the parolees will be rearrested within three years after beginning community supervision. The question is whether community supervision has any impact on reducing criminal activities. That is, would these offenders commit more crime if they were not being supervised in the community. Most research examining the effectiveness of probation and parole focuses on the effectiveness of increasing some component or condition of supervision, particularly the effectiveness of increasing different types of control. Disappointingly, the majority of these studies demonstrate no impact of the increased control; the recidivism rates for those who had the increased supervision or control over their behavior was approximately the same as the rates for the comparison groups (MacKenzie). In fact, frequently those who had more conditions requiring control had higher technical violation rates.

Several studies do give more hopeful signs. Most of the research examining the effectiveness of probation and parole has focused on the control aspects of community supervision; however, a few studies have examined the effectiveness of combining treatment and surveillance. The results of these studies are promising (MacKenzie). In several studies, the offenders who received increased supervision as well as increased treatment had lower recidivism than others who were not given the supervision and treatment. Many of these studies are exploratory and have not been replicated but they do present a hopeful sign that combinations of treatment and control may be effective in lowering recidivism.

Another indication that community supervision may have a positive impact on offenders comes from a self-report study completed by MacKenzie and her colleagues (1998). They asked offenders to report on their criminal activities during the year before arrest and during probation. Self-report criminal activity is important to study because few of the crimes committed result in an official record of arrest. The researchers found that the criminal activities of the offenders declined dramatically when the pre-arrest period was compared to the probation period. This suggests probation was effective in reducing the criminal activities of these offenders. Similarly, behaviors that constituted a violation of conditions of probation such as heavy drinking or illegal drug use were associated with increased criminal activity. The researchers found no evidence that increases in the intrusiveness of conditions, the agent's knowledge of misbehavior, or how the agent responded to misbehavior were associated with changes in criminal activity. Thus, while probation appears to be effective in reducing criminal activities and the violations of conditions signaled criminal activities, little else done during probation had a crime reduction effect.

The studies of the effectiveness of combinations of treatment and supervision and the findings from the self-report study of probation provide some encouragement that community supervision has the potential to be a valuable addition to the arsenal of activities criminal justice systems can employ to reduce crime in the community.

Doris Layton MacKenzie

See also Probation and Parole: Procedural Protection; Probation and Parole: Supervision.


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MACKENZIE, DORIS LAYTON. "Probation and Parole: History, Goals, and Decision-Making." Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice. 2002. 25 May. 2016 <>.

MACKENZIE, DORIS LAYTON. "Probation and Parole: History, Goals, and Decision-Making." Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice. 2002. (May 25, 2016).

MACKENZIE, DORIS LAYTON. "Probation and Parole: History, Goals, and Decision-Making." Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice. 2002. Retrieved May 25, 2016 from