6 Section 6.4: Parole, Probation, and Community Sanctions

Parole and probation, taken together with other forms of non-prison sanctions, are called community corrections. This is because these offenders reside in the community rather than in jail or prison. The idea of probation and parole is to reintroduce the offender into society as a productive member. The other major goal of probation and parole is to keep the community safe from predation.

Community-based sanctions are becoming increasingly popular as corrections budgets continue to rise, and overcrowding remains an issue. It is much cheaper to house an offender in the community than it is to keep them in prison. It is estimated that community supervision costs less than $1,000 per person supervised, while incarceration costs as much as $30,000 per prisoner. The push has been to increase prison time for predatory offenders, and to make room for them by finding alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders.


The practice of releasing prisoners on parole before the end of their sentences has become an integral part of the correctional system in the United States. Parole is a variation on imprisonment of convicted criminals. Its purpose is to help individuals reintegrate into society as constructive individuals as soon as they are able, without being confined for the full term of the sentence imposed by the courts. It also serves to lessen the costs to society of keeping an individual in prison. The essence of parole is release from prison, before the completion of sentence, on the condition that parolees abide by certain rules during the balance of the sentence. Under some systems, parole is granted automatically after the service of a certain portion of a prison term. Under others, parole is granted by the discretionary action of a board, which evaluates an array of information about a prisoner and makes a prediction whether he is ready to reintegrate into society.

To accomplish the purpose of parole, those who are allowed to leave prison early are subjected to specified conditions for the duration of their parole. These conditions of parolerestrict their activities substantially beyond the ordinary restrictions imposed by law on an individual citizen. Typically, parolees are forbidden to use alcohol and other intoxicants or to have associations or correspondence with certain categories of undesirable persons (such as felons). Typically, also they must seek permission from their parole officers before engaging in specified activities, such as changing employment or housing arrangements, marrying, acquiring or operating a motor vehicle, traveling outside the community, and incurring substantial indebtedness. Additionally, parolees must regularly report to their parole officer.

The parole officers are part of the administrative system designed to assist parolees and to offer them guidance. The conditions of parole serve a dual purpose; they prohibit, either absolutely or conditionally, behavior that is deemed dangerous to the restoration of the individual into normal society. Moreover, through the requirement of reporting to the parole officer and seeking guidance and permission before doing many things, the officer is provided with information about the parolee and an opportunity to advise him. The combination puts the parole officer into the position in which he can try to guide the parolee into constructive development.

The enforcement advantage that supports the parole conditions derives from the authority to return the parolee to prison to serve out the balance of his sentence if he fails to abide by the rules. In practice, not every violation of parole conditions automatically leads to revocation. Typically, a parolee will be counseled to abide by the conditions of parole, and the parole officer ordinarily does not take steps to have parole revoked unless he thinks that the violations are serious and continuing so as to indicate that the parolee is not adjusting properly and cannot be counted on to avoid antisocial activity. The broad discretion accorded the parole officer is also inherent in some of the quite vague conditions, such as the typical requirement that the parolee avoid “undesirable” associations or correspondence. Yet revocation of parole is not an unusual phenomenon, affecting only a few parolees. According to the Supreme Court in Morrissey v. Brewer, 35% – 45% of all parolees are subjected to revocation and return to prison. Sometimes revocation occurs when the parolee is accused of another crime; it is often preferred to a new prosecution because of the procedural ease of recommitting the individual on the basis of a lesser showing by the State.


Probation is very similar to parole, and many of the legal issues are identical. Many jurisdictions combine the job of probation and parole officer, and these officers are often employed in departments of community corrections. The most basic difference between probation and parole is that probationers are sentenced to community sanctions rather than a prison sentence. Parolees have already served at least some prison time. Some jurisdictions can sentence an offender to a split sentence. A split sentence requires the offender to stay in prison for a short time before being released on probation.

Most criminal justice historians trace the roots of modern probation to John Augustus, who began his professional life as a businessperson and boot maker. Augustus became known as the father of probation largely due to his strong belief in abstinence from alcohol. He was an active member in the Washington Total Abstinence Society, an organization that believed criminals motivated by alcohol could be rehabilitated by human kindness and moral teachings rather than incarceration. His work began in earnest when, in 1841, he showed up in a Boston police court to bail out a “common drunkard.” Augustus accompanied the man on his court date three weeks later, and those present were stunned at the change in the man. He was sober and well kempt. For 18 years, he served in the capacity of a probation officer on a purely voluntary basis. Shortly after his death in 1859, a probation statute was passed so that his work could continue under the auspices of the state. With the rise of psychology’s influence in the 1920s, probation officers moved from practical help in the field to a more therapeutic model. The pendulum swung back to a more practical bent in the 1960s when probation officers began to act more as service brokers. They assisted probationers with such things as obtaining employment, obtaining housing, managing finances, and getting an education.

Many jurisdictions have several levels of supervision. The most common distinction between levels of probationers is active supervision and inactive supervision. Probationers on active supervision are required to report in with a probation officer at regular intervals. Probationers can be placed on inactive supervision because they committed only minor offenses. Serious offenders can sometimes be placed on inactive supervision when they have completed much of a long probation sentence without problems.

The preferred method of checking in depends on the jurisdiction. Many require in person visits, but some jurisdictions allow phone calls and checking in via mail. Inactive probationers are not required to check in at all or very infrequently. Checking in with an officer is a condition of probation. Other conditions often include participation in treatment programs, paying fines, and not using drugs or alcohol. If these conditions are not followed, the the probationer is said to be a violator. Violators are subject to probation revocation. Revocations often result in a prison sentence, but some violators are given second chances, and some are sentenced to special programs for technical violations. Many jurisdictions classify absconders differently than other violators. An absconder is a probationer (or parolee) that stops reporting and “disappears.”

Following the trend of mass incarceration in the United States over the past several decades has been a similar trend in what has been called “mass community supervision.” In 1980, about 1.34 million offenders were on probation or parole in the United States. That figure exploded to nearly 5 million by 2012. The Bureau of Justice Statistics ( Maruschak & Parks, 2014) provides a look at these numbers from a different vantage point: about 1 in 50 adults in the United States were under community supervision at yearend 2012. The community supervision population includes adults on probation, parole, or any other post-prison supervision.

Officer Roles

Many jurisdictions combine the role of probation officer and parole officer into a single job description. In Gagnon v. Scarpelli (1973), the court had this to say of the duties of the such officers: “While the parole or probation officer recognizes his double duty to the welfare of his clients and to the safety of the general community, by and large concern for the client dominates his professional attitude. The parole agent ordinarily defines his role as representing his client’s best interests as long as these do not constitute a threat to public safety.” This statement suggests a dichotomy in the responsibility of parole (and probation) officers; these must look out for the best interest of the client as well as looking out for the best interest of the public. This fact frequently enters into politics. Liberals tend to focus on the treatment and rehabilitation of the offender, and conservatives focus more on the safety of the public and just deserts for the offender.

From the perspective of the parole officers, they must perform law enforcement duties that are designed to protect the public safety. These functions very much resemble the tasks of police officers. They are also officers of the court, and are responsible for enforcing court orders. These orders often include such things as drug testing programs, drug treatment programs, alcohol treatment programs, and anger management programs. Officers are often required to appear in court and give testimony regarding the activities of their clients. They frequently perform searches and seize evidence of criminal activity or technical violations. The courts often ask officers to make recommendations when violations do occur. Officers may recommend that violators be sent to prison, or continue on probation or parole with modified conditions.

There is ambivalence about the role of probation and parole officers within the criminal justice community. This has to do with an artificial dichotomy, often being characterized as police work versus social work. The detection and punishment of law and technical violations are characterized as the law enforcement role. The rehabilitation and reintegration of the offender are regarded as the social work role. Officers tend to lean more heavily toward one of these objectives than the other. Some officers embrace the law enforcement perspective, and seek strict compliance with the law and conditions of parole. Other officers view themselves more as counselors, helping the offender reform, and brokering community resources to help resolve problems. Which model a particular officer exemplifies has many influences. The officer’s personal beliefs, the dominate culture of the local office, the policy dictates of agency heads, and legislative enactments driven by political philosophies all play a role in shaping the working personality of each officer. The most effective officers are likely to be hybrids that fall somewhere in between the two archetypes.

Intermediate Sanctions

Traditionally, a person convicted of an offense was sentenced to probation, or sentenced to prison. There was no middle ground. The purpose of intermediate sanctions is to seek that middle ground by providing a punishment that is more severe than probation alone, yet less severe that an period of incarceration. Perhaps the most common among these alternatives is Intensive Supervision Probation (ISP). Offenders given to this sort of intermediate sanction are assigned to an officer with a reduced caseload. Caseloads are reduced in order to provide the officer with more time to supervise each individual probationer. Frequent surveillance and frequent drug testing characterize most ISP programs. Offenders are usually chosen for these programs because they have been judged to be at a high risk for reoffending.

Another common type of alternative to prison is the work release program. These programs are designed to maintain environmental control over offenders while allowing them to remain in the workforce. Most often, offenders sentenced to a work release program reside in a work release center, which can be operated by a county jail, or be part of the state prison system. Either way, work-release center residents are allowed to leave confinement for work related purposes. Otherwise, they are locked in a secure facility.

Correctional boot camps are facilities run along similar lines to military boot camps. Military style discipline and structure along with rigorous physical training are the hallmarks of these programs. Usually, relatively young and nonviolent offenders are sentenced to terms ranging from three to six months in boot camps. Research has found that convicts view boot camps as more punitive than prison, and would prefer prison sentence to being sent to boot camp. Research has also shown that boot camp programs are no more effective at reducing long-term recidivism than other sanctions.

Key Terms

Absconder, Active Supervision, Community Corrections, Conditions of Parole, Gagnon v. Scarpelli (1973), Inactive Supervision, John Augustus, Parole, Parole Officer, Parolee, Revocation, Split Sentence, Technical Violation, Violator, Work Release Program


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