History of Probation and Parole in the United States Research Paper

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Probation and parole are two types of community supervision that form the “bookends” of corrections in America. Probation is a community supervision sanction imposed in lieu of incarceration, while parole involves supervision of individuals released from incarceration. Together, these two broad types of supervision take on the lion’s share of criminal clients under the formal control of the criminal justice system. Designed to surround incarceration, these correctional settings offer offenders conditional release into the community. Offenders receive formal, written supervision conditions, and a supervision officer monitors their progress and behavior in the community. An offender who commits a new crime while on community supervision or violates the supervision conditions may be placed into an institutional setting. Within probation and parole, offenders may be managed differently. Offenders who commit more serious crimes and are also considered high risk may be placed on higher levels of supervision that have stricter conditions, as opposed to less serious offenders who may not be monitored as closely.

The current systems of probation and parole developed in America during the mid-nineteenth century; however, the historical purposes and use of these systems of community management have European origins. As an alternative to incarceration, justice officials have traditionally used probation and parole for offenders that do not need to be incarcerated. By monitoring these criminals outside of prison, the community supervision agencies can help alleviate prison crowding and keep criminal justice costs down. Supporters believe that parole can also have a positive benefit by influencing prison behavior by acting as an incentive for good behavior. Scholars, politicians, and the public have attacked community supervision for being ineffective or “soft” on crime. Research suggests that with proper identification of risk and appropriately matched correctional interventions, community supervision can be effective at keeping offenders from recidivating and reducing correctional costs.

Like any other area in criminal justice, probation and parole present issues of financing, management, and newer issues concerning the role of technology in supervision. In response to greater numbers of people under correctional control and strained budgets, community supervision is most likely at the beginning of the next phase of its evolution: increasing the effectiveness of supervision through proper identification of risk and needs of offenders, while matching clients to the appropriate level of supervision and keeping criminal justice costs to a minimum.


Today, imprisonment is an accepted and frequently used criminal sanction; however, the criminal justice system supervises a majority of criminals in the community. Nearly 7.1 million people were under correctional authority at the end of 2005. Community supervision monitored nearly five million of those people (Glaze and Bonczar 2006). For as long as statistics on the correctional population have been tracked, about two-thirds of those under correctional control have been supervised on probation and parole.

Taken together, probation and parole are the “bookends” of incarceration in America because these systems “surround” incarceration. Probation is a community supervision sanction imposed in lieu of incarceration, while parole serves to supervise individuals released from incarceration. Offenders placed on formal supervision must abide by specific conditions and must report to an officer responsible for tracking their progress and behavior in the community. Should the offender violate these conditions, the court or paroling authority can revoke the community supervision status. If found to be in violation of supervision conditions, the resulting violation (or revocation) hearings often lead to stricter community supervision conditions or incarceration.

Many people consider incarceration, especially the prison, to be the cornerstone of correctional intervention in the United States. While America’s prison population has drastically risen over time, probation and parole are still responsible for a majority of offenders under formal control. As prisons become increasingly crowded, it is important to address alternative sanctions to incarceration because community corrections will receive many criminals that otherwise might have been sent to prison. This research paper will discuss the historical origins of community supervision and their function within the community. It will also address important contemporary issues confronting community corrections including effectiveness, appropriate identification of criminals’ needs, financing, and the role of new technology in supervision. This research paper will conclude with a discussion of the future of probation and parole.

The Development Of Probation And Parole

Probation and parole developed in the United States during the nineteenth century; however, these systems are not uniquely American inventions. During the Middle Ages and early Modern Era, feudal law would often require a strict sentence of corporal or capital punishment for criminal behavior. Over time, due to changing societal values and the reemergence of unified nation states, English justice officials were in need of an alternative to corporal and capital punishment and early forms of incarceration. Justice officials began to explore community supervision for several reasons, including early forms of prison crowding and as an altruistic recognition that the behavior of some offenders did not warrant imprisonment or capital punishment.

The development of probation can be traced to formal statutes and church intervention in England. During the medieval period, clergy members accused of crimes could have their cases moved from a criminal court to a church court. As a form of asylum, the “benefit of clergy” would allow the accused to avoid hanging as a penalty for their crimes. By reading the 51st Psalm, the criminal could claim the status of being a member of the clergy. The 51st Psalm was recognition of the offenders’ remorse and repentance but also a literacy test to identify true clergy members. By the early nineteenth century, English statutes would end this practice due to misuse by illiterate, common criminals that would commit the verse to memory and misrepresent themselves as clergy members (Travis 2012). In its place, the English established statutes to allow court officials to exercise a form of official judicial reprieve. This formalized practice allowed sentencing officials to delay sanction under the conditions of good behavior for a set amount of time. At the same time, the courts developed release on recognizance (ROR), a practice that released accused persons awaiting hearings before circuit magistrates. Court officials had the discretionary power to release accused offenders into the care of a sponsor or by the offender posting some form of collateral. This practice was also an early forerunner to the system of bail in the United States. Together, judicial reprieve and ROR influenced alternatives to incarceration that were more formal process functions that directly led to the creation of probation and parole.

Early use of ROR in America first occurred in Massachusetts in 1830. In Commonwealth v. Chase, a woman was freed after pleading guilty without sentence being passed. In her case, the court released her, allowing her “upon her recognizance for her appearance in this court whenever she should be called for, to go at large” (as cited in Cromwell et al. 1985). Today this type of release is common for criminals with minor charges.

John Augustus is considered the “father of probation” and the creator of the most widely used correctional sanction in criminal justice. Originally a shoe cobbler in Boston, Massachusetts, Augustus became a volunteer probation officer in an unofficial capacity, when in 1841 he persuaded local court officials to release nonviolent drunkards into his custody in lieu of incarceration. Augustus would conduct a rudimentary background investigation of these individuals (a forerunner to presentence investigations), and if he chose to sponsor an individual, he would post a small fee for their release and supervise the individual in the community where he expected certain conditional behaviors. Augustus expanded his work to sponsoring men accused of other crimes, women, and some children. Over nearly two decades, he managed almost 2,000 criminals in the community. The Commonwealth recognized his work by codifying “probation” as an official sanction and the law made John Augustus the first paid probation officer. Later, other states adopted the Massachusetts model.

Parole developed in a similar manner around the same time as probation. Like Augustus, who became dissatisfied with blanket incarceration, other justice officials began to recognize the shortcomings of imprisonment. Early proponents of parole-like actions did not believe that simple incarceration in prisons had the power to “reform” criminals. Instead of a determined period of incarceration served by an offender, they developed systems to allow prisoners the opportunity to earn early release from their sentence. For example, Sir Walter Crofton developed “tickets of leave” for inmates in Ireland. After an early period of solitary confinement, prisoners could improve their stage of treatment through hard work and good behavior. After passing through an intermediate stage of treatment in prison, inmates could secure their release with a “ticket of leave.” Under this system, Crofton gave himself the discretion to release an inmate early from their sentence and report to local authorities that an offender would be returning home. Under Crofton’s system, there was no formal supervision of the offender after his release.

Captain Alexander Maconochie is considered the “father of parole.” As an administrator of a British penal colony, Maconochie developed a “mark system” that allowed inmates to improve their classification. When entering the prison, all prisoners were at the lowest level of classification – the “penal stage” which was defined by hard labor and intense supervision. After a period of time with good behavior, prisoners could earn enough “marks” to move to the “social” stage. At this level, prisoners would have better living conditions in a smaller group setting with less supervision. Prisoners reached the final stage (“individual”) through even more “marks” and earned the privilege of living in a cottage while working towards their conditional release (Travis 2012). Maconochie’s system also called for the loss of “marks” and status. If offenders were to have poor behavior or laziness, they could be penalized and demoted. This carrot-and-stick system gave the prisoners incentives for good behavior in the prison, which helped control bad behavior in the institution.

In 1870, at the meeting of the American Prison Association in Cincinnati, prison reformers pushed for the creation of parole and a system of reformatory discipline for United States prisons. A prison in Elmira, New York, was the first where prisoners could be sentenced to terms of indeterminate incarceration. Parole in America would develop two main components: (1) discretionary early release from prison for worthy prisoners and (2) a period of supervision in the community that follows release (Travis 2012). Parole could also be used to support discipline within prison.

Current concerns about community supervision focus on how offenders are supervised, the types of services they receive, and whether these types of community management can curb new crime. These concerns have spurred the creation of specialized courts, such as reentry courts. The purpose of these courts is to increase the courts’ supervision of an offender and allow for better coordination of community-based services (e.g., treatment programs, job placement). Reentry courts may represent a new paradigm in community corrections, which have been largely unchanged in purpose or design for over a century. Much in the vein of drug courts and mental health courts, reentry courts serve a population of released offenders, with a goal of improving offenders’ transition from an institutional setting to a community setting.

Legal Issues In Community Corrections

The Progressive Era of corrections in the early twentieth century survived legal challenges to the discretionary powers inherent in probation and parole. In fact, these legal challenges helped formalize the systems of how offenders secure an early release and how they are supervised in the community and violation procedures. For example, Morrissey v. Brewer (1972) required that parolees accused of violations be granted certain due process protections. Offenders had the right to (1) written notice of violation, (2) disclosure of evidence, (3) the right to a hearing and the right to present evidence at that hearing, (4) a limited right to confront witnesses, (5) a hearing before a neutral body, and (6) a written statement of the decision that addressed the evidence upon which it was based. Gagnon v. Scarpelli (1973) extended these rights to probation violators, stating that there was no substantial difference between probationers and parolees. In sum, the court combined these two different forms of supervision because they supported the interests of probation and parole clients in maintaining their conditional liberties and, by doing so, granted them certain due process rights during revocation hearings.

Note that probation and parole are restrictive forms of supervision for criminals. Even though criminals in the community enjoy greater freedoms than those incarcerated, they are still held to a higher standard of behavior than those not on supervision. Formal conditions restrict simple behaviors that most Americans take for granted. For example, unrestrained citizens can move across state lines without official permission from a court or paroling authority, but most of those under supervision must gain this permission before performing an otherwise legal behavior.

The Organization And Function Of Community Supervision

While both are forms of community supervision, the level of organization of probation and parole can be very different. Generally, probation is organized at the county and municipal level, while parole is typically a state function. On the other hand, in some states, the same officer may be charged to act as both a probation and parole officer.

If an offender is placed on probation, that offender is under the jurisdiction of the court and has conditions imposed by the sentencing judge. The probation officer is an officer of the court, responsible for completing a presentence investigation for the court, holding the probationer to the set of standards specified by the judge, and acting as a fact finder for the court if there is a violation of these conditions. Parolees are under the jurisdiction of the paroling authority. The paroling authority will set the conditions of release into the community, while parole officers are responsible for holding the parolee to the set of standards specified by the authority. The parole officer operates much like a probation officer and has similar duties of monitoring clients and reporting any wrongdoing.

In its most basic form, probation and parole represent an agreement between the offender and the state. In order to gain his or her release into the community, the offender must agree to abide by a set of rules dictated by the sentencing judge or paroling authority. Violation of these conditions can be the basis for increased sanctions or the loss of liberty and subsequent incarceration. There are two broad types of violations. The first type covers new crimes committed by an offender while on supervision status. The second type covers technical violations that do not require any “criminal” behaviors. Due to the restrictions placed on probationers and parolees, these offenders must abide by a higher set of standards than those not under correctional control. Offenders can violate their conditions of supervision with such simple behaviors as unauthorized movement across state lines, using alcohol, or failing to report their new address to their supervising officer.

The status of probationer or parolee is sometimes known as being “on paper.” Probationers and parolees typically receive written rules or conditions of supervision. This listing of the conditions is the “paper.” Conditions serve many purposes. One purpose of written probation and parole conditions is to ensure that supervision can occur. That is, these rules are in place to define the behavioral expectations on the part of the offender and to define any further restrictions or treatments expected of them while in the community. These conditions also define how a probation or parole officer will interact with an individual. For example, if the offender is a known drug user, the conditions may require the officer to conduct drug tests with the client a defined number of times per month. Another purpose of written conditions is to place the offender on notice. Some conditions notify offenders that they may owe a certain amount of money in fines or may have to perform a certain amount of community service hours before he or she can be considered for outright release. Finally, this notice may be a simple time commitment, clearly defining that an offender must spend a specific period on supervision before discharge. Other conditions require the offender to seek or complete treatment. Finally, some conditions are designed to be punitive, such as requirements that offenders serve some jail time or write “punish lessons.”

Generally, probation and parole conditions are not universal across jurisdictions. There is a set of standard conditions that are expected of everyone in that specific jurisdiction (e.g., follow up with all subsequent court hearings and probation meetings, do not commit a new crime); however, while they are often similar, these standard conditions vary slightly in tone and expectation across jurisdictions. Probationers and parolees also receive special conditions. Instead of general expectations imposed on everyone on community supervision, these conditions are typically tailored to the individual (e.g., completion of treatment programs – substance or behavioral, restrictions on drug or alcohol use). General and specific conditions reflect the purpose of modern community corrections that offenders are formally controlled in the community while receiving necessary services to keep them from recidivating.

Issues In Community Supervision Effectiveness

Community supervision has come under attack from critics as being ineffective and “soft” on crime. Those that measure “effectiveness” as a total reduction in recidivism may never be satisfied with community supervision. The evidence reported in this section suggests that community supervision can be cost-effective and may have a positive impact on reducing criminal recidivism with certain types of offenders. The key to effective community supervision is embedded in proper identification of offenders that can behave successfully in the community with less state restriction. As the science of identification, rehabilitation, and controlling risk continues to improve, so will the effectiveness of community corrections. This section examines the effectiveness of the system according to research on the risk of offenders in the community, the cost-effectiveness of community supervision, and the successful types of community interventions.

Does Community Supervision “Work”?

The answer to this seemingly simple question may depend upon the yardstick used to define what “works” in terms of community corrections. Put differently, to define and measure what “works” may depend upon the point of view of the person asking the question. For example, politicians who campaign on crime policies may use a reduction in recidivism as evidence of a “working” system, while budget officials or economists may use a cost-benefit ratio to explore evidence of an effective system.

Community corrections should serve a basic purpose of community protection. Probationers should be appropriately identified as the type of people who do not need to be incarcerated and can operate pro-socially in the community. However, due to the increase in prison populations, community corrections are taking on more clients, some of whom may not be appropriate for this type of intervention. This is particularly a concern for probation since violent offenders are making up a larger portion of probationers (Auerhahn 2007), which can be attributed largely to a lack of bed space in prisons and poor identification of risk. Adding to this concern is the evidence that simple probation supervision may not be appropriate for certain types of offenders. Research indicates that probation has failed to prevent overall crime and is specifically ineffective with violent criminals and criminals guilty of fraud or forgery (MacKenzie et al. 1999). But probation can effectively prevent new crime for certain types of offenders such as drug dealers and people that engage in property crime. This illustrates an important point in moving forward: probation can “work” if clients are appropriately matched to the correct form of intervention and supervision. If evidence suggests that violent criminals are not appropriate for community control, policies should be reevaluated to make sure that these criminals do not receive a probation sentence. Alternatively, supervision practices might be changed to better monitor and control these types of offenders.

Other scholars have questioned the appropriateness of probation with certain types of offenders. Petersilia found that due to risks to public safety, felons in California were not appropriate for probation supervision. However, other scholars came to different conclusions when studying different states, citing that her results may be an artifact of California supervision. The concept of effectiveness was measured similarly across these studies, since each study was interested in new crimes committed by offenders, yet the researchers reached different results. The researchers could have defined and measured the concept of effectiveness differently and come to different conclusions altogether. For example, they could have examined whether the probation period was successfully completed by felons without any type of technical violations or time to recidivism.

Parole has also been harshly criticized by some scholars who have called for the abolition of parole in the United States. This argument hinges on ethical issues (e.g., supervision after incarceration adds extra punishment) and the lack of evidence supporting parole effectiveness. Indeed, measurement of parole effectiveness also suffers from the same measurement problems that plague probation research. Conflicting research defines effectiveness as curbing new crimes by parolees or keeping clients out of prison due to technical violations of their supervision conditions. The latter point is particularly important given that one-third of all inmates in state prisons were parole violators as of 2005 (Sabol et al. 2007). Some scholars have suggested that counting these types of offenders as failures of the system makes it impossible to adequately measure parole effectiveness (Flanagan 1985). In other words, it is important to identify how parole effectiveness should be determined: reduction in new crimes by the offenders, reduction in technical violations, or both. If parole keeps offenders from committing new crimes, then it may be successful. Research that measures technical violations in addition to new crimes may not be indicative of higher rates of crime.

The use of different outcome measures will lead to different conclusions about community supervision effectiveness. Generally probation and parole work to the degree that they (1) control risk of new crime, (2) reduce incarceration and correctional costs, and/or (3) match punishments with offenders. These three areas represent particular goals of the system and appear to suggest community supervision can be an effective form of intervention.

Controlling Risk

Attempts to identify and manage risk through probation and parole are difficult and imperfect but necessary for the system to operate within its means. A critical question for risk control of offenders in the community is a pure cost-benefit question: how safe is safe enough? Supervision of known criminals in the community will always present the risk of some offenders committing future crimes, but is there a threshold of new criminality below which officials would deem community supervision safe enough? If the widespread use of community supervision were to lead to an increase in overall crime, these types of interventions would be unacceptable. Minimizing new crime by these offenders would be optimal; however, if a level can be reached that maintains current crime rates, then the risk presented by community supervision would be no greater than that posed by incarceration.

The development of risk assessments and their appropriate use by probation and parole officers allow the risk of recidivism among correctional populations and specific types of offenders to be validly predicted (Holsinger et al. 2006). If an offender presents a higher risk of recidivism, justice officials may consider a higher level of supervision in the community or a period of incarceration. Risk can be eliminated entirely if the system had the means to incarcerate every criminal sentenced. However, even if the system had the means for blanket incarceration, an overwhelming majority of inmates would receive a simple discharge into the community.

Assessments of recidivism suggest that community supervision of offenders does not place the community at large under a greater threat of crime. Evaluations of parolee recidivism suggest that more offenders could be placed on parole with little to no change in the rate of parole failures (Wilson 2005). This assessment also noted that most of the failures could be attributed to technical violations, not new crimes by the offenders.


Estimates suggest the cost of each new prison bed to be approximately $80,000, with an annual maintenance fee of $20,000 or more for each inmate’s house. Even though the costs of incarceration are high, prisons continue to be built and the increased use of incarceration puts bed space at a premium. Yet, in reality the system does not have the means to incarcerate all offenders. Community supervision was born in part from a desire to reduce overcrowding and costs associated with corrections. Clear and Byrne (1992: 321) flatly say, “The frank bottom line for the intermediate sanction movement must be whether it is able to reduce overcrowding in corrections.”

Though always dated, most cost evaluations suggest that community supervision of an offender will cost far less than incarceration. An early study measuring direct and indirect costs of different sanctions suggested a state could save nearly six million dollars in 1 year if 3,000 inmates were diverted from prison and placed on probation instead (as cited in Latessa and Allen 1997). More recent evaluations have attempted to examine this cost-benefit analysis with greater rigor, specifically, by accounting for recidivism rates of probationers versus parolees. These studies also support the conclusion that community supervision is more cost-effective than incarceration.

Matching Offenders With Effective Interventions

Properly identifying clients’ needs and matching them to appropriate interventions may be key to determining greater effectiveness of community corrections. Since there is a wide variety of offender needs and crimes committed, the system must sustain a wide range of interventions. Matching offenders to the appropriate punishment begins with identifying a proper penalty for the seriousness of the crime committed. Thus, the first basic decision point is whether the offense merits prison or consideration for community supervision. Of course, under probation supervision, there exists a myriad of levels and types of supervision. Next, justice officials must identify the essential needs of the client and match him or her with the correct intervention. It would be pointless, for example, to require a forger with no history of substance abuse to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Correctional rehabilitation has been continuously attacked for being “soft” and easy on crime. However, there is substantial evidence that when we correctly identify the needs of offenders and match them to a program with a strong treatment modality, the client will be less likely to recidivate. Gendreau found that 64 % of offender rehabilitation studies showed that appropriate correctional intervention can reduce recidivism, and if these programs are using the principles of effective intervention, their effectiveness can be strengthened (as cited in Latessa and Allen 1997). Assessment tools have been created that help correctional staff identify risk and needs. These assessment tools have changed the manner in which probation and parole officers conduct their jobs.

Other Issues In Community Supervision

This section examines broad current issues relevant to community supervision. As the science behind effective criminal control advances and government budgets become more strained, the issues of financing, management, and technology have become more relevant.


Several states have implemented incentive programs for counties that support the use of community supervision and community-based intervention programs. This type of legislation encourages counties to decrease the number of commitments to state prisons, while also helping to subsidize community corrections programs. In 1965, California was the first state to pass such legislation when it codified the Probation Subsidy Act. This law used a formula that estimated the number of offenders expected to be sentenced to prison by each county and then paid $4,000 to the county for each additional offender below that estimate who was not sentenced to state prison. Other states followed suit by passing subsides tied to the development and expansion of community intervention programs.

Some states and counties have also imposed supervision fees to help subsidize the cost of community supervision. Supervision fees can be found in the form of a one-time flat fee for supervision or a monthly fee paid by the offender for the privilege of maintaining community supervision. Criminal sentences increasingly include restitution as a sanction that orders the offender to pay money. Restitution can compensate the victim for any money lost during the criminal act or for subsequent medical bills. Some states also have general victim-compensation funds that each offender must pay into as part of their conditions.

Supervision fees and restitution can offset the costs of community supervision, but they also present new problems for the system. First, the collection of money puts probation officers in a situation where they become bill collectors, a role that these officers generally dislike. Secondly, while supervision fees are minimal (e.g., $10 per month), how should the system proceed if the client does not or cannot pay that fee? If the offender is employed, wages can be garnished through order of the court, but the time and money spent on securing this garnishment may offset the minimal fee collected. On the other hand, if the client is not employed or simply does not pay, this client could be violated for failure to pay these conditional fees. This will likely be counterproductive to managing finances since incarceration is more expensive than community supervision.


Several models of organization of caseload work have been proposed and adopted, more recently focused on specialty supervision. The traditional casework model expects a single officer to provide needed services and supervision for a wide range of offender types. Sometimes referred to as “line officers,” these supervision officers supervise the bulk of offenders in the community and have a wide, general range of responsibilities. New innovations in management have created specialty positions, such as team supervision and differential case management.

Team supervision is an approach that attempts to capture officers’ strengths. This type of supervision would use an officer who might be particularly good at helping people find jobs as an employment officer. However, this type of group supervision can become confusing if the offender experiences a varied continuum of supervision. Another development in supervision involves tailored case management for specialty offender populations. For example, a few probation officers may be assigned specifically to supervise sex offenders.

The model case management system, developed by the National Institute of Corrections, has three components: (1) classification, (2) case planning, and (3) the assignment of workload units (Travis 2012). Classification is accomplished through risk and needs assessments that are completed by the probation officer and offender. Through these assessments, distinct categories of risk and program needs are created.


Innovations in technology have also influenced community supervision. As community supervision agencies adopt these innovations, they changed the role of the probation and parole officer. While some innovations have strengthened the ability of officers to execute their duties, some have added responsibilities that traditionally did not exist.

Mandated drug and alcohol testing are heavily used supervision conditions. Many scholars, policy makers, judges, and correctional staff believe that these types of testing will deter substance use and in turn reduce new crime. Testing can be in the form of blood tests sent to a lab to determine if an offender is using alcohol or drugs. More instant tests involve single or panel urine screens conducted on site by the probation or parole officer. If the offender is considered to be a habitual marijuana user, the supervising probation officer can use a single dipstick to test for THC present in the urine. If the supervising officer wishes to screen for a variety of drugs, a panel of tests contained on one stick can be conducted on urine. Drug tests have shaped the work of the modern day probation and parole officer. Officers now spend a good amount of time collecting and testing urine samples.

Electronic monitoring devices can be affixed to an offender’s body to allow the supervising officer to monitor his or her whereabouts. Traditional electronic monitoring involves an ankle bracelet monitored by radio frequency through a transmitting device placed in the offender’s home using a land phone line. The monitoring system will either randomly dial the offender’s phone to ensure they were home or utilize a passive transmitter to notify the supervising officer when the offender is outside of the transmitting zone (e.g., a distance of 50 yards). If the client is not on house arrest, regular “windows of leave” may be entered into the system by supervising officers so that offenders could leave their home for work, school, treatment sessions, or basic necessities like grocery shopping or doctor visits. Newer advances in electronic monitoring involve the use of global position systems (GPS) to give supervising officers instant, geographically specific updates on the whereabouts of their clients.

Finally, in some jurisdictions, probation officers are required to collect DNA samples from clients. For example, Pennsylvania requires that certain offenders submit to a DNA test upon conviction. Originally collected through blood by a nurse, samples can now be collected through a cheek swipe conducted by probation officers. The DNA sample is processed by the probation officer and sent to the state repository, adding an additional responsibility to officers’ role.

Discussion: Open Questions Concerning The Future Of Probation And Parole

Having considered the historical ideologies, modern operation of probation and parole, and current issues facing these systems, this section addresses the future of community corrections. As discussed throughout this research paper, the criminal justice system continues to increase the amount of offenders under correctional control – both in prison and in the community. Overcrowding in prison continues to be a concern for justice officials, but a less visible problem is bulging caseloads for community officers. This is highlighted by Brown v. Plata (2011), a recent United States Supreme Court ruling that orders California to release nearly a quarter of its prison population for reasons including inadequate physical and mental health care and prison overcrowding. The release of offenders into the community will have an immediate impact on the caseload sizes of community supervision officers in California. Yet this decision will also have longer-term effect on caseload size as judges may tailor future sentencing decisions to comply with overcrowding regulations set by the court. That is, judges may place even more offenders in the community that previously might have been incarcerated.

The larger issue for community corrections in the future is saturation: at what point will community corrections, like prisons today, become overburdened? Can similar logic used for defining overcrowding in prison be applied to community services? Prisons are designed to house a specific number of inmates, and should a prison reach and exceed its design capacity, it can be considered overcrowded. A review of the research on the relationship between caseload size and a positive probation outcome (e.g., lower recidivism rates) has not provided justice actors with any baseline number for an overburdened caseload. What research has suggested is that generally large caseloads are associated with an increase in property offenses and, in contrast, smaller caseloads are criticized for being too intense and have an unintended outcome of net-widening within the system. Other recent research has indicated that a reduced caseload size in addition to sound evidence-based treatment has the potential to reduce offender recidivism (Jalbert et al. 2010). Nevertheless, the balance between the two extremes is vague. More community-based offenders under correctional control will also place a larger burden on community-based mental health and drug treatment services. It may be unreasonable to assume that the inadequacy of social services in prison will be improved in the community when larger numbers of individuals are placed into the community under correctional control.

In response to overburdened caseloads and understaffed departments, some agencies have turned to new technology to help supervision. For example, in some states certain low-risk offenders are “supervised” by a kiosk. That is, the individual under supervision checks in periodically with a computer kiosk to pay fines or restitution and update any information with the court. The use of the computer kiosk (and its less engaging predecessor – the filing cabinet) raises ethical questions concerning the purpose of community-based punishment. As noted previously, probation and parole are less restrictive forms of supervision than incarceration. But these forms of supervision involve human interaction, checks on behavior and adherence to supervision conditions. If judges have identified a portion of offenders that do not need to be supervised because of their low-risk categorization or minor offense, why are these individuals on supervision? Furthermore, these offenders are not receiving any treatment or rehabilitation services from the court as part of their community supervision status. Therefore, the use of non-reporting supervision or kiosks does not appear to serve any clear purpose associated with community supervision.

The future of probation and parole will be dictated by the amount of resources given to these community agencies. If policy makers, court officials, and researchers continue to advocate for increased use in community corrections, more money must be funneled towards these official agencies and community agencies that lend social support. However, if probation and parole services reach a saturation point that result in the increased use of non-reporting supervision or inadequate services, these sentences become supervision and punishment in name only. Ultimately, for probation and parole to continue to increase their efficiency in case management and to optimize the effect on recidivism, these correctional systems should continue to utilize and expand evidence-based practices such as supervision and treatment strategies that adhere to the principles of effective intervention.


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  16. Travis LF III (2012) Introduction to criminal justice, 7th edn. Anderson Publishing, Co., Newark
  17. Wilson J (2005) Bad behavior or bad policy? An examination of Tennessee release cohorts, 1993–2001. Criminol Public Policy 4(3):485–518

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