A framework to improve probation and parole


Since 1980, the nation’s community supervision population has ballooned by almost 240 percent. As of 2016, 1 in 55 U.S. adults (nearly 4.5 million people) are on probation or parole, more than twice the number incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails. Historically, probation and parole were intended to provide a less punitive, more constructive alternative to incarceration, but a growing body of evidence suggests that a frequent emphasis on surveillance and monitoring of people under supervision rather than on promoting their success, along with the resource demands of ever-larger caseloads, has transformed community supervision into a primary driver of incarceration. This shift has produced an array of troubling consequences, not only for individuals on probation and parole but for taxpayers and communities as well.

In recent years, a growing body of evidence on what works in community supervision has revealed a set of key challenges that undermine the system’s effectiveness and merit attention from policymakers:

  • Community supervision is a leading driver of incarceration. Probation and parole are intended to be alternatives to incarceration. However, people who failed on supervision account for a significant percentage of prison and jail admissions. According to the Council of State Governments, nearly 25 percent of all state prison admissions in 2017 were associated with technical violations of supervision, such as breaking rules or failing drug tests, and an additional 20 percent were the result of new crimes committed while on probation or parole.
  • Excessive rules can present barriers to successful completion of supervision. Requirements, such as frequent reporting, ongoing and random drug testing, curfews, electronic monitoring, and the payment of fines and fees, make it difficult for many people on probation and parole to keep a job, maintain stable housing, participate in drug or mental health treatment, or fulfill financial obligations, such as child support.
  • Agencies often inappropriately supervise low-risk individuals. Research indicates that subjecting lowrisk individuals to intensive supervision or treatment leads to worse outcomes than no intervention and that adhering instead to a lighter-touch approach for this population does not result in increased arrests or diminish public safety. Nevertheless, many people who pose a low risk of reoffending or have been convicted of minor crimes continue to undergo inappropriate supervision. This drives up costs and runs counter to what the evidence recommends.
  • Overextended supervision officers have less time to devote to high-risk, high-need individuals. As caseloads grow, many agencies struggle to prioritize supervision and services for individuals at a high risk of reoffending as well as those with significant needs related to substance misuse, housing instability, or financial insecurity. As a result, probation and parole officers often lack sufficient resources to promote success for the people who are most likely to fail on supervision.
  • Many people with substance use or mental health disorders do not receive treatment. Studies show that a large proportion of people on community supervision struggle with alcohol or other drug dependence, a problem compounded by co-occurring mental health conditions. Moreover, many states struggle to provide people on supervision with adequate treatment for these conditions, which contributes to unsuccessful outcomes. And though the availability of treatment has improved in some areas, many people on probation and parole cannot access needed services because of financial, transportation, and other resource limitations.

To address these problems, some supervision agencies have begun to embrace evidence-based practices that have been shown to improve outcomes and reduce recidivism. These include the use of research-based assessment tools to identify an individual’s level of risk for reoffending, graduated sanctions, such as increased reporting or short-term incarceration, to respond to violations of supervision rules, and incentives to encourage rule compliance. As a result of these and other policy changes, 37 states have experienced simultaneous reductions in crime and community supervision rates.

Although those results are encouraging, states and agencies need time to analyze their systems and enact reforms on a much larger scale to ensure that probation and parole function more effectively. To help states meet this challenge, The Pew Charitable Trusts, in partnership with Arnold Ventures, established the Advisory Council on Community Supervision to develop a policy framework for state lawmakers, court officers, and community corrections personnel. The council featured a diverse group of representatives from probation and parole agencies, the courts, law enforcement, affected communities, the behavioral health field, and academia. Drawing on its members’ extensive experience and knowledge, the council agreed on three broad goals for the next generation of community supervision: better outcomes for people on supervision, their families, and communities; a smaller system with fewer people on supervision; and less use of incarceration as a sanction for supervision violations, particularly breaches of the rules.

With those goals in mind, the council developed a menu of policies that state decision-makers and supervision administrators can use to reshape community supervision. Arnold Ventures supported the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota to examine the research underlying the policies and practices identified by the council, and where such an evidence base exists, it is summarized and cited in this framework. The recommendations are arranged according to seven broad objectives:

  • Enact alternatives to arrest, incarceration, and supervision. Research has consistently shown that supervision is not an effective approach for individuals with a low risk of reoffending, and that it can even increase that risk. Additionally, for people who commit minor offenses, probation can be an overly punitive response. For this reason, the council recommends using alternative, community-based sanctions for people convicted of low-level offenses, such as traffic violations and minor drug crimes. Specifically, the framework features policies that divert low-risk individuals to services instead of arrest, defer prosecution, provide community service as an alternative to incarceration or supervision, reclassify moving vehicle and drug offenses, raise the value of property offenses that trigger felony charges, prioritize courts for higher-risk individuals, and require evidence-based standards for problem-solving courts.
  • Implement evidence-based policies centered on risks and needs. Evidence-based decision-making is the foundation of effective supervision, and its essential components are the principles of risk, need, and responsivity (RNR)—an assessment methodology that enables parole and probation officers to develop case plans tailored to individuals’ needs and level of risk of reoffending. When these principles guide supervision operations, outcomes improve. Research shows that supervision and treatment should be prioritized for people assessed as having a higher risk for recidivism and a greater need for services, and that those assessed as low risk experience better outcomes without being subjected to intensive supervision, stringent rules, or unnecessary treatment. Although supervision agencies have taken steps to emphasize risks and needs and deploy resources accordingly, problems remain. To improve practice, the council recommends that agencies assess risks and needs using a validated assessment tool; tailor case plans based on those assessments; differentiate supervision by risk level; develop specialized caseloads; and analyze workloads to identify effective caseload sizes.
  • Adopt shorter supervision sentences and focus on goals and incentives. Two main factors have driven the growth in the community corrections population: the number of people sentenced to probation and parole, and the length of time they remain under supervision. Recent research has demonstrated that long supervision sentences do not deter crime and deliver diminishing benefits. In addition, practices that emphasize adherence to rules by people under supervision, rather than addressing their risks and needs, often lead to failure. Concluding that supervision terms are generally too long and counterproductive, the council recommends that agencies establish goal-based supervision; adopt clear incentives for positive behavior; use earned compliance credits, which allow people to shorten their supervision terms by following the rules; award earned-time credit for program completion; shorten supervision terms; and require automatic administrative sentence reviews that provide early termination of supervision if the individual has met certain criteria.
  • Establish effective and appropriate supervision conditions. People on supervision must comply with a long list of “standard” conditions, and in some cases, many additional, sometimes arbitrary “special” requirements. Individuals who fail to follow these rules can face sanctions, including revocation of their probation or parole, which in turn often leads to incarceration. The council recommends imposing only conditions that benefit public safety; tailoring conditions to each person’s specific needs; reserving drug testing for individuals with substance use disorders; using positive drug tests as an indicator of treatment needs, rather than of defiance; using technology to simplify the process of reporting to supervision agents; and implementing place-based supervision, which requires that officers and treatment services be located near where individuals on parole and probation live.
  • Develop individualized conditions for payment of legal financial obligations. People receiving a criminal sentence are often ordered to pay fines, fees, and restitution as part of their sentences and may be required to be current on payments as a condition of supervision. In addition, community corrections agencies often fund their operations by charging people on supervision a range of fees for required programs and processes, such as drug testing, electronic monitoring, and treatment. Some of these legal financial obligations (LFOs) may be intended to help jurisdictions enforce accountability for criminal behavior and address crime victims’ financial losses, but they also create a significant barrier to supervision success by imposing economic burdens on those least able to afford them. The council recommends that jurisdictions establish affordable restitution payments; phase out fees for supervision, corrections services, and assessment; stabilize agency funding to eliminate reliance on LFOs; conduct a financial assessment of individuals’ payment ability; use a proportional system of fines based on an individual’s income; encourage compliance by providing payment plans, waivers, and forgiveness options; offer alternatives, such as community service and restorative justice—a practice of providing opportunities for people convicted of crime to repair the harms they caused—and eliminate revocations of supervision, extensions of supervision terms, and suspensions of driver’s licenses for inability to pay.
  • Reduce use of and pathways to incarceration. Supervision revocations, especially for technical violations, are a major driver of costly jail and prison admissions, and even short jail stays can create serious hardships for individuals, including loss of employment, decreased wages, housing insecurity, and family instability.1 Because of the human and fiscal costs, numerous states have adopted policies to limit incarceration for technical violations. The council recommends building on these efforts through reforms that standardize the definition of a technical violation; limit arrest and incarceration for technical violations of supervision; establish appropriate responses to absconding (see the glossary); restrict the use of incarceration before a revocation hearing; guarantee counsel in revocation hearings; and reduce health-related risk by establishing continuity of care and ensuring access to treatment.
  • Support community supervision agencies. In addition to the principles of RNR, community corrections agencies can adopt a wide range of research-based supervision practices. To this end, the council recommends that states provide agencies with financial incentives to achieve successful outcomes; invest in staff development around evidence-based practices; establish hiring and promotion practices based on the effective use of key practices; measure agencies’ performance; monitor demographic data in relation to outcomes; and allocate funding to support evidence-based practices and research.

This report details the challenges facing community supervision systems around the country and outlines specific policy changes that states can make to achieve improved outcomes. Although legislative action represents the best vehicle for adopting sustainable reforms, this document also includes a range of administrative changes that officials can make to improve policy and practice at the agency level. These recommendations are supported with examples of policy changes already adopted in jurisdictions across the U.S. and summaries of the research on their impact. The council encourages policymakers to view its recommendations and the accompanying state examples as a starting point for discussion rather than the bounds of what is possible.

Download the full 77 page report here