Setting Parole Conditions to Achieve Public Safety

Background and Context

Each year, approximately 400,000 individuals are released from prison and placed under parole supervision – accounting for approximately 59% of all releases from prison in 2011 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2012).  Over 800,000 offenders are currently under parole supervision in the United States.  Despite some recent and welcome reductions in community supervision populations nationwide, in 2011, one in every 50 adults in the United States was under supervision in the community by a probation or parole agency (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2012).   

To promote successful outcomes and increase public safety, this very significant population of offenders is largely managed by parole officers (or agents) who provide oversight to parole cases by:

This Action Guide focuses primarily on the last responsibility noted above – the effective response to parole violations. Parole violations involve the failure of the parolee to properly abide by the conditions of parole that have been imposed by the releasing authority or other appropriate entities.  These violations may involve the commission of new crimes, failure to comply with a term of release with no additional crime being committed ("technical violations"), or some combination of the two.  This area is one that warrants attention because rates of successful parole completion have decreased considerably in recent decades, and this decline can be at least partially attributed to returns to custody for parolees who fail to abide by the terms and conditions of their release.  From 1984 to 2005, a significant decline in the number of parolees successfully completing parole occurred – dropping from 60% to 45% (Greenfeld, 1984; Glaze and Bonczar, 2006).  Recent studies have indicated that this downward trend in success rates for parolees has continued - with 33 per 100 completed supervision cases reporting successful outcomes in 2011, down from 34 per 100 in 2008 (Maruscha and Parks, 2011).  If current trends continue, states are likely to see increasing numbers of parole and probation violators admitted to prison.  There is a considerable percentage of violators who could be managed in the community, thereby freeing up prison beds that could be used for more dangerous offenders.  This approach – of incarcerating violators who are determined to be higher risk – helps to diminish risk to public safety and reduces unnecessary correctional costs (Burke, Horowitz, & Gelb, 2007).

Even modest levels of violations resulting in return to incarceration—or more importantly—failures resulting in new crimes, generates significant costs to the community and impact upon victims.  In light of this, in recent years, an approach to supervising individuals in the community has begun to emerge.  It is a model that is evidence-based and requires a shift from a system focused solely on compliance with conditions to one of targeted efforts to enhance successful, law-abiding completion of supervision.  It recognizes that many offenders will violate their conditions of supervision one or more times and largely acknowledges that responses are most effective when they are delivered quickly and when the actions taken seek to positively change, rather than punish, behavior (Carter, 2011).

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. 

When Offenders Break the Rules:  Smart Responses to Parole and Probation Violations (Available at

< Goals of this Guide, and How to Use It

Background and Context, Continued >