Criminal Justice

What is Community Supervision

January 15, 2019

Community supervision, or community corrections, is a set of programs that provide for the supervision of individuals convicted of crimes in their local community versus placing them in a secure correctional facility. The two most common types of community supervision are probation and parole. Both types of programs can be completed in combination with other programming or resources, such as a halfway house, day reporting, substance abuse treatment, mental health services, and vocational training. Defining community supervision is a difficult task though, as these programs are implemented differently in every jurisdiction.

What is Probation?

Probation is a supervision program that occurs post-sentencing as a substitute to incarceration. At sentencing, judges will generally have the discretion to choose the length of time the defendant must serve on probation and choose the conditions of their supervision. Probation can be designated as either active or inactive supervision. Active supervision will involve regular reporting to a probation officer as well as more severe conditions of supervision.

What is Parole?

Parole is another type of supervision program that occurs after someone has been incarcerated and conditionally released from prison to serve the remainder of their sentence under community supervision. This release can occur because of a parole board decision or a statute requiring such release. Those placed on parole can also be classified as active or inactive based on their underlying criminal conviction and record of compliance with parole conditions.

There are currently 4.5 million individuals who are under some form of community supervision in the United States. These individuals represent 69 percent of the total correctional population. Probation alone accounts for 56 percent of those under the control of our correctional systems. While probation populations have declined by 14 percent since their peak in 2007, parole populations have actually increased by 6 percent.

Community supervision takes a different form in each state or local jurisdiction. Probation can be centrally controlled by a state agency or coordinated by a variety of local agencies funded by state or local tax revenue. This results in the existence of 456 different probation agencies across the country.

Parole, on the other hand, is almost uniformly controlled by each state’s department of corrections. States differ in their function of these programs because each provides its parole board with a different level of discretion when determining whether an individual will be released from prison and placed on parole. Indeterminate sentencing, the traditional method still used by 33 states, provides each parole board with significant discretion to determine when someone has served enough time in prison and can safely be released to the community on parole supervision. Determinate sentencing, which is used by 17 states and the District of Columbia, and a variety of other states for only certain crimes, imposes a court determined prison sentence that cannot be overruled or changed by a parole board (if one exists).

Early research evaluating the effectiveness of probation and parole seems to show a variety of results for community supervision programs, with probation appearing to be most effective when it focused on youth offenders and when probation officers had smaller caseloads, consisting of less than 15 cases. Parole, on the other hand, was found to only have an impact on reducing recidivism while the individuals were being supervised. Shockingly enough, recidivism rates post supervision were similar to the rates of those released directly from prison, and it appeared that parole only delayed the cycle of recidivism, rather than preventing it.

While community supervision has changed since its initial inception, recent data and research continue to show mixed results for these programs. Almost a third of individuals who enter these programs will fail to successfully exit them, with many returning or entering prison instead. This high failure rate has resulted in more than half of prison admissions occurring from probation or parole revocations in states like Montana, Rhode Island, and Georgia.

The incarceration of rapper Meek Mill raised awareness among Americans for the need to adopt reforms in our community supervision systems. Our current system frequently places both program participants and staff in circumstances where it is difficult, if not impossible, for them to be successful. Current programs and the incentives inherent in their design do not encourage success for participants or provide officers with the resources they need to be successful.

Officers Face an Uphill Battle

Community supervision officers are frequently prevented from successfully fulfilling the demands of their role. Their offices are notoriously underfunded and officers are asked to serve two divergently different roles when interacting with individuals under their supervision.

Reports of understaffing and overwhelming caseloads began in the 1990s and have continued without any significant improvement nationwide. For example, the American Probation and Parole Association recommends a 50 to 1 caseload of moderate- to high-risk individuals for each community supervision professional but some jurisdictions require their parole officers to manage caseloads more than three times the national standard. Their roles are additionally complicated by the fact that they are asked to serve as both social workers and law enforcement officers, even though many have limited or no power to arrest those they are supervising.

These circumstances have resulted in many agencies being faced with high turnover, a decreased positive impact on public safety, and a large population of missing individuals (“absconders”) with warrants for failing to meet supervision conditions. A significant impact has also been felt by the officers, with many facing exhaustion, job dissatisfaction, and high levels of stress.

Participants Stuck in an Endless Cycle

Approximately one-third of those placed on community supervision will fail to complete these programs because of technical violations or the commission of new crimes. Those on probation today are subject to between eighteen and twenty-nine different conditions or terms of their community supervision. These include drug treatment, curfews, geographic restrictions, paying a supervision fee, and checking in with a probation or parole officer on a regular basis. While any single condition standing alone may seem reasonable and appropriate, the imposition of many conditions can result in a list of restrictions that are nearly impossible for even the most rehabilitated individual to satisfy.

The increased imposition of supervision fees has also forced many on probation or parole to choose between providing for themselves and their families and the threat of being incarcerated for a failure to pay these debts owed to the justice system.

Another recent trend that has made success more difficult for those on community supervision is the length of time they are sentenced to such programs. While the most recent data available shows that average time served has remained largely constant for probation and increased slightly for parole over the past few years, the long-range trend has been to extend the time in these programs far beyond the years immediately following conviction or incarceration. In some jurisdictions, periods of supervision can extend well beyond ten years to even a lifetime. What person would not forget one of their weekly meetings with a community supervision officer over the course of ten years?

A failure to meet the myriad of imposed conditions during a lengthy community supervision term will likely result in many individuals being placed in local jails or state prisons. A best, this begins a cycle of constant transfer between supervision and jail. At worst, this revocation results in someone serving the rest of their sentence in a prison cell.

The current situation experienced by many placed in community supervision is contrary to the best practices discovered through research and generally known by practitioners. Both intense supervision and long terms of supervision have not been found to improve public safety and in some instances have been found to result in increased technical violations, more individuals absconding from supervision, and higher rates of incarceration. Innovative reforms exist that can be adopted to improve our community supervision programs and many of them have been successful in reducing the number of people in these programs without negatively impacting public safety.

States can implement shortened, evidence-based community supervision terms. Since most re-offenses or re-arrests occur within the first two years of community supervision, resources should be reallocated from imposing long community supervision terms to ensuring success during these critical years. Doing this would expand the amount of time and effort community supervision officers spend helping individuals achieve success in these programs.

Louisiana’s adoption of such reforms resulted in a 4.2 percent decrease in the number of individuals under community supervision and a 53 percent decline in the number of technical revocations occurring in the state. While the larger package of reforms has only been in place for one year, the state has already realized $12.2 million in savings.

Jurisdictions could adopt reforms which incentivize positive behavior and completion of recidivism-reducing programs to ensure a constructive culture in community supervision programs. Missouri adopted what it calls “earned compliance credits” for its programs in 2012, allowing reductions in the probation and parole terms of those convicted of drug or nonviolent felonies. This resulted in individuals being able to earn an average 14-month reduction in their supervision term but did not have any negative impact on recidivism rates or public safety.

Community supervision programs can utilize swift, certain, and graduated sanctions for violations that do not involve incarceration and can be imposed by community supervision officers. Research reveals that the certainty of apprehension, not the severity or length of punishment, is the most effective way to ensure public safety.

South Carolina adopted reforms in 2010 that enhanced the use of administrative sanctions and alternatives to incarceration as a response to the violations of supervision conditions. Since that time, recidivism among individuals on community supervision has decreased from nearly 10 percent to below 5 percent, and the number of individuals revoked to a Department of Corrections facility has declined by 46 percent. The overall package of reforms has saved the state’s taxpayers $458 million.


Community supervision programs vary by form and function based on the jurisdiction but are tasked with supervising millions of Americans each year. The body of research and current data show that these programs have not been effective at ensuring the success of those involved. Some states have recently adopted promising reforms which ensure these programs align with known evidence-based practices. More jurisdictions should consider such reforms which can reduce the burden of these programs on taxpayers and ensure more restoration among those being supervised.