Probation and Parole Systems Marked by High Stakes, Missed Opportunities
Incarceration has long dominated the national conversation on criminal justice, because the U.S. prison population skyrocketed between the 1980s and late 2000s. Starting in 2007, policymakers seeking to protect public safety, improve accountability, and save taxpayer dollars initiated a wave of bipartisan reforms that has reduced the number of people behind bars in many states. Yet this movement has largely overlooked the largest part of the correctional system: community supervision.
Nationwide, 4.5 million people are on probation or parole—twice the incarcerated population, including those in state and federal prisons and local jails. The growth and size of the supervised population has undermined the ability of local and state community corrections agencies to carry out their basic responsibilities to provide the best public safety return on investment as well as a measure of accountability. Although research has identified effective supervision and treatment strategies, the system is too overloaded to implement them, so it sends large numbers of probationers and parolees back to prison for new crimes or for failure to follow the rules.
As part of a collaborative effort to improve the nation’s community corrections system, The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation analyzed the leading research and identified the most pressing problems and some promising solutions. The available data leave many questions unanswered, but this review reveals key insights and challenges many assumptions about supervision. Among the findings:
Community corrections is marked by considerable growth and scale, disproportionate representation of men and people of color, and a majority of people who committed nonviolent offenses.
1 in 55 U.S. adults (nearly 2 percent) was on probation or parole in 2016 (the most recent year for which data are available), a population increase of 239 percent since 1980, though rates vary considerably by state, from 1 in 18 in Georgia to 1 in 168 in New Hampshire.
Between 1999 and 2016, the probation population per crime reported to police rose 24 percent and per arrest rose 28 percent.
African-Americans make up 30 percent of those on community supervision but just 13 percent of the U.S. adult population.
3.5 times as many men as women are on supervision, but the number of women on parole or probation has almost doubled since 1990 to more than 1 million.
More than three-quarters of the 4.5 million Americans on probation or parole were convicted of nonviolent offenses.
Improvements in supervision offer opportunities to enhance public safety, decrease drug misuse, and reduce incarceration.
Nearly a third of the roughly 2.3 million people who exit probation or parole annually fail to successfully complete their supervision for a wide range of reasons, such as committing new crimes, violating the rules, and absconding. Each year almost 350,000 of those individuals return to jail or prison, often because of rule violations rather than new crimes.
About one-fifth of felony defendants were on supervision when they were arrested. Although probationers and parolees make up a minority of arrests, they are disproportionately represented among arrestees compared with the general population, suggesting that improved supervision success rates would lead to greater public safety and reduced taxpayer expense.
Rates of substance use among those on supervision are two to three times those of the general population, but many probationers and parolees do not have access to treatment.
Policy changes can reduce correctional control and improve public safety.
From 2007 to 2016, 37 states experienced simultaneous drops in their community corrections and crime rates. In many cases, these gains followed adoption of evidence-based sentencing and corrections reforms that prioritized scarce supervision and treatment resources for higher-risk individuals, invested in risk-reduction programs, and created incentives for compliance.
These findings demonstrate the need for greater scrutiny of the community corrections system by policymakers and the public. They also reinforce an emerging consensus among leading practitioners for a fundamental change in the vision and mission of supervision: from punishing failure to promoting success.
Administrative response: A sanction for noncompliance with supervision rules that is less punitive than long-term incarceration, such as a verbal or written warning, curfew restrictions, more frequent drug testing, and short-term incarceration.
Administrative supervision: A form of probation that typically requires little to no contact with a supervision officer but also permits a return to prison or jail if the person being supervised is not compliant.
Community corrections (community supervision): Mandatory oversight by a judge or parole board of an individual outside a secure facility. The two most common types are probation and parole.
Conditions of supervision: Rules that those under supervision must follow, such as abstaining from alcohol and illicit drugs, reporting to supervisory officers, abiding by a curfew, participating in treatment programs, and avoiding contact with people with felony records.
Earned compliance credits: A policy that awards time off supervision terms for compliance with conditions.
Evidence-based practices: Practices and programs demonstrated to be effective through research.
Graduated sanctions: A range of community-based penalties, such as increased reporting, community service, and short-term incarceration, administered in a manner that is swift, certain, and proportional to the violation.
Parole: Conditional release to community supervision after a term of incarceration.
Probation: Community supervision imposed by the court generally in lieu of incarceration.
Revocation: Sanction for failure to comply with supervision conditions that results in incarceration either for a defined period or, for some on parole, completion of their original sentence.
Revocation cap: A limit on the amount of time served in jail or prison for a revocation resulting from a technical violation.
Risk and need assessment: A tool for determining a person’s likelihood of reoffending, appropriate level of supervision, and needs (such as treatment for substance use disorders) that, if addressed, would reduce the risk of reoffending.
Technical violation: Noncompliance with one or more conditions of supervision, excluding new criminal convictions, that may result in sanctions or revocation.
At the end of 2016, more than
4.5 million people were on probation
or parole, accounting for two-thirds
of the total correctional population.
More than 3.6 million of those
individuals were on probation, and
the remaining 875,000 were on
The community corrections
population peaked in 2007, and
although it had declined 11 percent
by 2016, it remained near its all-time
high and was 239 percent larger
than it was in 1980.2 Although
the significant growth of the
U.S. prison and jail populations
over the past half-century has
garnered substantial public and
policymaker attention, this similar
rise in the number of people on
community supervision has been
From 1999 to 2016, the probation population increased relative to the volume of crime and arrests. Specifically, the number of people on probation per crime rose 24 percent and per arrest rose by 28 percent. Although the reasons for the growth in supervision—or for the more recent decline—have not been well-studied these data indicate that crime is not the only factor influencing the size of probation populations; sentencing and corrections policies and practices also have an effect.3 This finding has a strong precedent—the lion’s share of prison growth has been attributed to policy choices4—but more research is needed to understand these relationships and their implications for criminal justice policy.
As probation and parole populations
grew, so did the per capita rate of
community supervision. Today, 1 in
55 adults in the U.S., or 4.5 million
people, is subject to postconviction
surveillance and court-ordered rules.
That share is down 581,900 people
from the 2007 peak of 1 in 45, but it
still represents nearly 2 percent of
In addition, the national rate
masks wide variation in how
probation and parole are used
across states. The share of people
on community supervision ranges
from 1 in 18 in Georgia to 1 in 168
in New Hampshire,5 and even
among neighboring states with
similar populations and political
demographics, rates can differ
significantly. For example, 1 in 33
adults in Idaho is on supervision
compared with just 1 in 134 in Utah.
Virtually all demographic groups
are represented in the community
supervision population.6 However,
people of color, particularly
African-Americans, and men are
The racial gap resembles that in
incarceration: Black adults are about
3.5 times as likely as whites to be
supervised, and although African-
Americans make up 13 percent
of the U.S. adult population, they
account for 30 percent of those
on probation or parole. In addition,
although federal data do not indicate
disproportionate representation of
Hispanics in community corrections,
many states do not report ethnicity
data, so Hispanics under supervision
Imbalances also exist among females
and males under supervision.
Men are supervised at a rate about
3.5 times that of women. However,
the share of women under supervision
has nearly doubled from 520,000 in
1990 to more than 1 million at the
end of 2016. As a result, women
accounted for one-quarter of the
probation population and 1 in 8
parolees by 2016.
At the end of 2016, 8 in 10
probationers and two-thirds of
parolees had been sentenced
for nonviolent crimes. Drug and
property crimes each accounted for
more than a million of the people on
parole or probation that year.8 For a
sense of scale, if individuals under
supervision for drug crimes and
those for property crimes each made
up a city, they would rank among the
10 largest cities in the U.S.9
Unlike the prison population, which
consists almost entirely of people
convicted of felonies, the community
supervision population includes
people convicted of offenses ranging
from the least serious misdemeanors
to the most severe violent offenses.
At least 4 in 10 probationers are
being supervised for a misdemeanor
offense; the ratio is probably higher,
but the true figure is unknown
because of a lack of data from
some agencies that supervise only
About half of people who exit
parole or probation complete their
supervision terms successfully. For
the other half, failure is common
and often leads to jail or prison.
In 2016, 29 percent of the nearly
2 million probation exits were
unsuccessful, and 12 percent
(nearly a quarter of a million
people) resulted in incarceration.
Of approximately 425,000 parole
exits, 30 percent were unsuccessful
and 27 percent led to incarceration.
All told, nearly 350,000 supervision
failures result in prison or jail
Although 50-state data are not
available, research has found that
probation and parole revocations
contributed significantly to prison
admissions in several states in
made up 55 percent of all prison
admissions in Georgia and
61 percent in Rhode Island, while
parole revocations accounted for
54 percent of all prison admissions
in Arkansas. In some states, the
proportions were significantly lower,
such as Massachusetts, where
probation and parole revocations
accounted for just 19 and 7 percent
of admissions, respectively, and
Nebraska, where those figures were
8 and 17 percent.
One recent study concluded
that “the largest alternative to
incarceration in the United States
is simultaneously one of the
most significant drivers.
A study of individuals released
from prison in 2004 in 41 states
showed that the proportions sent
back for a new crime and for a
technical violation of supervision
were nearly identical.13
Some data also suggest that people
on probation and parole contribute
disproportionately to arrests.14 In 2009, 18 percent of felony
defendants in the 75 largest urban
counties were on supervision at
the time of their arrest. How many
arrests are for new crimes versus
rule violations is unknown, but
research suggests that many may be
the result of supervision practices
that focus on catching mistakes
through surveillance and monitoring,
rather than on promoting success via
rehabilitation and support.15 More
research is needed to understand
these dynamics and develop policies
to prevent new crimes and reduce
revocations for technical violations.
The large community corrections
population and diverse risks and
needs of people under supervision
have made appropriately managing
each person increasingly challenging.
A large body of research has
demonstrated the practicality and
importance of classifying individuals
based on their risk of recidivism and
treatment needs and then prioritizing
supervision and intervention resources
on those most likely to benefit.16
For example, an evaluation of
halfway house treatment programs
in Ohio showed that, although the
intervention effectively reduced
recidivism for those considered highrisk,
it increased reoffending among
low-risk participants.17 Research
has consistently shown that oversupervising
low-risk individuals can
do more harm than good by disrupting
supportive elements of their lives,
such as family, education, and
employment, and mixing them in with
people who are higher-risk.18 On the
other hand, prioritizing resources and
attention for high-risk individuals and
those in need of treatment has been
demonstrated to yield the greatest
reductions in reoffending.19
Nearly half of the community
corrections population has a
substance use disorder, and rates
of substance use, misuse, and
dependence are two to three times
higher for people on probation
and parole than for the general
However, many people under
supervision who could benefit from
treatment do not receive it because
of strained budgets, limited options
in the community, or other factors.21 Research has found that a large
share of the illicit drug problem is
driven by a relatively small group of
frequent users, many of whom are
under correctional supervision.22 So the failure to provide substance
use treatment represents a
critical missed opportunity to
reduce drug consumption and its
costs to individuals, families, and
Research has shown that the growth in America’s prison population had a real, if limited, effect on crime rates. However, public investments
in increasing imprisonment passed the point of diminishing returns long ago, and 35 states have simultaneously reduced crime and
imprisonment since 2008.23
Similarly, 37 states experienced drops in both community supervision and crime from 2007 to 2016.24 And some, such as Texas and South
Carolina, cut their supervision and crime rates by 20 percent or more. As was the case with imprisonment, these declines often followed
the adoption of evidence-based sentencing and corrections reforms that aim to improve public safety while ensuring accountability and
controlling taxpayer costs. Policymakers have pursued these goals by prioritizing scarce community corrections resources for higher-risk
individuals, investing in programs to reduce recidivism, and providing incentives for compliance with supervision rules.
A new era for community supervision
Over the past quarter-century, researchers have identified a core set of strategies that can significantly reduce recidivism and thereby increase public safety and cut spending. These include scientifically validated tools to assess people’s risk levels and treatment needs; individual case management plans that match people to appropriate supervision levels and treatment programs; cognitive behavioral and other evidence-based therapies to change behavior; and swift, certain, and proportionate sanctions and rewards for violations and compliance.
The community corrections field has increasingly embraced these essential building blocks of an evidence-based system, and many jurisdictions have seen encouraging results. But bigger gains are possible and urgently needed, given the stakes for those being supervised, for crime victims, and for families and communities.
This analysis suggests that the system is struggling to carry out its mandate. Progress will necessitate more than gradual adoption of specific practices and programs; it will require that the system shrink substantially and embrace major changes in policy and mission. An emerging consensus among criminal justice professionals supports a series of strategic shifts away from the current mass, time-based, isolated, and enforcement-minded model to one that is:25
Focused. Direct supervision resources to those who pose a higher public safety risk instead of filling caseloads with low-risk people.
Goal-based. Design supervision terms to end when people complete specific requirements or assigned programs, rather than when they have served a period of months or years.
Integrated. Recognize how neighborhood and social factors affect behavior, and engage community members rather than relying heavily on pressure from the legal system.
Constructive. Fundamentally change the purpose of supervision from punishing failure to promoting success. The goal should be to help people repair the harm they have caused and become self-sufficient, law-abiding citizens, rather than simply enforcing rules set by courts and parole boards, catching violations and imposing penalties, including incarceration.
Striking the right balance between accountability for violations and new crimes, and incentives for compliance and progress can improve outcomes. Ultimately, a more effective community corrections system will require a culture change: Policymakers and stakeholders must view people on supervision as capable of change and deserving of support.
Reforms Can Safely Reduce Supervision Caseloads, Revocations
After decades of growth, the community corrections population has dropped in several states that invested in research-based public safety strategies. Across the country, policymakers are adopting reforms that prioritize scarce resources for higher-risk individuals while removing lowerrisk people from supervision caseloads. Changes include shorter terms, earned compliance credits, and reduced or inactive supervision.
Some states also reduced revocations for technical violations and provided a range of options for addressing noncompliance. After South Carolina adopted graduated sanctions, compliance revocations decreased 46 percent, and people under supervision were 33 percent less likely to be incarcerated or reincarcerated than before the reforms. Similarly, after Louisiana implemented a 90-day cap on jail or prison terms for firsttime technical violations, length of incarceration declined by 281 days and new-crime revocations fell 22 percent. And after Missouri adopted earned discharge—in which probationers and parolees accrue time off their sentences for compliance— supervision terms dropped by 14 months, the supervised population fell 18 percent, average caseloads decreased 16 percent, and recidivism rates did not change.26
Community supervision is the largest component of the corrections system. The 4.5 million people on probation and parole are double the number in state, local, and federal prisons and jails combined. Although about half of these people successfully complete their terms, the sheer size of the population means that current failure rates contribute significantly to the nation’s volume of arrests, drug misuse, and incarceration.
Over the past decade, a strong bipartisan consensus has fueled reforms in dozens of states aimed at safely reducing the nation’s high rate of imprisonment while maintaining public safety. And that is exactly what’s happening: Since its peak in 2008, the imprisonment rate has dropped 11 percent while the crime rate has fallen 23 percent.27 Crime reductions were, in fact, greater in states that had the biggest reductions in imprisonment.28 Thirty-seven states have also experienced simultaneous drops in community supervision and crime.
Yet compared with prison reform, which has been the focus of a broad national conversation, the issue of community corrections has received scant attention. It is time for that to change. By taking a similar data-driven approach to improving the community corrections system, leaders in all three branches of government can extend the gains already made to protect public safety, ensure accountability, and control taxpayer costs.
Appendix A: Methodology
Much of the data in this report come from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Annual Probation and Annual Parole surveys, which are the only community corrections data collection that covers all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal system. The 2016 survey was sent to 456 agencies in the states and the District, of which 414 were in the eight states without a centralized supervision system, and to the federal system. Some data issues do exist, including the following:
Reporting methods have changed over time for some probation and parole agencies.
An individual can enter or exit the system multiple times a year or be concurrently serving more than one sentence for separate crimes, but those duplications are not identified.
Agencies vary in their ability to provide annual population counts that are consistent with Bureau of Justice Statistics definitions.
Some agencies report the number of cases, while others report the number of individuals they supervise. Because an individual can have multiple probation sentences, counting cases can artificially inflate the totals. BJS requests that agencies report the number of individuals under supervision, and each year some agencies make the conversion, resulting in what appears to be a large decrease from previous years.
Research suggests that probation totals are probably undercounted because some agencies report only felony sentences and some may include or exclude individuals on other forms of community control (e.g., diversion programs, private probation, and drug courts).
The exit data had significant weaknesses, because many states either failed to collect the necessary information or provided estimates.
Georgia and Michigan did not provide year-end community corrections population figures; year-start figures (Jan. 1, 2016) were used as an estimate. Total community corrections rates and probation rates also were not provided but were calculated using year-start population figures and July 1, 2016, census figures.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration treatment data are from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an annual survey of the general household population involving interviews with randomly selected individuals to examine trends in substance use disorders and receipt of treatment. The survey excludes people with no fixed address and residents of institutional group quarters, such as jails, and may not capture the entire population of arrestees. People on probation and parole are reported separately (i.e., counted twice). An individual was classified as needing treatment for a substance abuse problem if he or she met the criteria for dependence on or abuse of a substance or if he or she received treatment at a specialty facility, including a hospital (inpatient), rehabilitation facility (inpatient or outpatient), or mental health center in order to reduce or stop illicit drug or alcohol use, or for medical problems associated with illicit drug or alcohol use. Unmet treatment need refers to respondents classified as needing such treatment but not having received it.
Appendix B: State statistics
The total community supervision population excludes parolees on probation to avoid double-counting and so will not equal the sum of probation and parole populations.
The decline in the community corrections population is the result of the decrease in the probation population. The parole population has continued to grow slowly, increasing by 0.5 percent from 2015 to 2016.
Georgia and Michigan did not provide year-end community corrections population figures; year-start figures (Jan., 1, 2016) were used as an estimate. Those states also did not deliver total community corrections and probation rates, so they were calculated using year-start population figures and July 1, 2016, census figures.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics provides only demographic data related to race/Hispanic origin and sex. The data do not allow for exploration of the relationship among those variables.
Offense types may not add up because of rounding. Weapons offenses are broken out only for parole. If a probationer or parolee was convicted of more than one offense, he or she was categorized by the most serious one.
Michelle S. Phelps, “The Paradox of Probation”; Fabelo, “A Ten-Step Guide to Transforming Probation Departments.”
D.A. Andrews, James Bonta, and R.D. Hoge, “Classification for Effective Rehabilitation: Rediscovering Psychology,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 17, no. 1 (1990): 19-52, https://doi.org/10.1177/0093854890017001004; Dena Hanley, “Appropriate Services: Examining the Case Classification Principle,” Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 42, no. 4 (2006): 1-22, https://doi.org/10.1300/J076v42n04_01; Christopher T. Lowenkamp, Edward J. Latessa, and Alexander M. Holsinger, “The Risk Principle in Action: What Have We Learned From 13,676 Offenders and 97 Correctional Programs?” Crime & Delinquency 52, no. 1 (2006): 77-93, https://doi.org/10.1177/0011128705281747; Jesse Jannetta and William Burrell, “Effective Supervision Principles for Probation and Parole,” in Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice, eds. Gerben Bruinsma and David Weisburd (New York: Springer, 2014), https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-5690-2_24.
Thomas E. Feucht and Joseph Gfroerer, “Mental and Substance Use Disorders Among Adult Men on Probation or Parole: Some Success Against a Persistent Challenge,” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2011), https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/235637.pdf.