When Offenders Break the Rules

The incarceration of offenders who break the rules of their probation or parole is one of the chief reasons for the rapid growth of prison and jail populations and costs. Over 230,000 parole violators were admitted to prison in 2005, accounting for more than one-third of all admissions. Half the U.S. jail population is the consequence of failure under community supervision.

Some of these offenders are returning to lock-ups for committing new criminal acts. Others are revoked to prison for violations of their parole and probation conditions, non-criminal offenses such as missing appointments or failing drug tests. A growing body of analysis and experience suggests a strategy that can boost the success of people on parole and probation, keeping them crime- and drug-free and thereby saving more prison beds for violent, serious and chronic offenders.

Some states return a high percentage of probationers and parolees to prison for breaking the rules of their release; others do not. The decision to seek revocation of community supervision can be inconsistent, the result of wide variability in staff members' interpretation of when revocation is appropriate. Revocation rates also vary widely within a single state—high in one region, much lower in another—and even among judges and parole officers in the same district. This raises questions about evenhandedness and fundamental fairness. It also suggests a significant opportunity to be more strategic in using the power to revoke release.