High rates of incarceration in the United States have rightfully garnered significant attention from policymakers, researchers, and the public. However, community supervision programs, including parole and probation, have received comparatively little attention. This disparity is notable given the fact that the number of people under community supervision is more than twice as large as the incarcerated population.
In fact, the 3.9 million people on parole and probation in 2020 accounted for 70% of the total correctional population that year. As policymakers pursue reforms to reduce the incarcerated population, the share of correctional populations under parole and probation has increased. Supervision agencies are often under-resourced and are increasingly required to find ways of doing more with less.
Probation and parole are intended to encourage community reintegration by providing an alternative to incarceration and keeping justice-involved individuals in their communities. However, a growing body of research finds that community supervision programs may be contributing to the problem of mass incarceration in unintended ways. Individuals under community supervision are typically subject to conditions including regular check-ins, drug testing, curfews, electronic monitoring, and the payment of fines and fees. In some cases, failure to comply with these conditions can result in a revocation of community supervision and a return to jail or prison.
Of the reported 1,790,000 individuals who exited probation in 2019, only about 53% successfully completed their probation. Approximately 13% of parole exits that year were attributable to parole revocations that resulted in incarceration. Among those who were revoked and returned to incarceration, about 40% were incarcerated due to technical violations. Only 31% were incarcerated for new crimes, with the remaining 29% incarcerated for other unknown reasons.
One of the most common requirements placed on individuals under community supervision is that they have regular contact with the officers assigned to manage their cases. The nature and frequency of this contact varied depending on the specific needs and risk level of each individual under supervision. One form of contact between supervisees and officers is an in-person parole or probation meeting. These meetings often take place at an agency office and may serve a variety of purposes. Supervisees may provide updates on education and employment, receive support and treatment, and be tested for recent drug use.
Despite their importance to effective supervision, office visits are often difficult to coordinate. Supervisees frequently miss appointments due to work, education, or difficulty securing transportation. Missed appointments and time spent coordinating meetings represent opportunities to improve the use of scarce time by parole and probation officers. Eliminating these inefficiencies would allow officers to focus their time and attention on higher-risk supervisees in greater need of intensive supervision.
Moreover, failure to meet with supervising officers is among the leading forms of technical violations committed by parolees. For example, an analysis of parole violations in Michigan found that failure to report to probation officers was by far the most common type of violation, accounting for over 33% of all recorded violations.
Surprisingly, one relatively low-cost intervention that focuses on reducing the frequency of missed appointments for probation and parole supervision is supported by a growing body of evidence: sending text message reminders to supervisees regarding upcoming appointments.
To assess the potential of test-message reminders to reduce the number of missed parole and probation meetings, a randomized control trial was recently conducted among community supervision participants in Arkansas.
Our findings suggest that sending text scheduled appointments could reduce canceled and missed appointments by as much as 21% and 29%, respectively.
To be sure, there are many necessary reforms to community supervision in the United States. Policymakers should seek to ensure that community supervision is focused on rehabilitation and reintegration rather than doling out punishment. To that end, revocations and incarceration for technical violations should be limited.
Supervising officers must also have sufficient time and resources to effectively support the clients under their supervision. While certainly not a panacea, improving meeting attendance through text message alerts is a cost-effective way of reducing technical violations and improving the efficiency of community supervision programs.
Each year, more than four million Americans are under community supervision. Too often, community supervision programs like parole and probation exacerbate the problem of mass incarceration rather than diverting people away from jail and prison. Individuals on community supervision are subject to a litany of supervision conditions and, more often than not, fail to meet all of those conditions. As many as three-fourths of people under community supervision commit some form of a technical violation of their supervision conditions. These technical violations can result in incarceration, creating a supervision-to-incarceration pipeline. In fact, technical supervision violations account for approximately 23% of state prison admissions each year.
Several reforms are necessary to ensure that community supervision programs fulfill their purposes. Reforms should refocus supervision on reintegrating justice-involved individuals into society and maintaining public safety rather than punishing individuals for minor technical violations. As demonstrated in the Arkansas experiment reviewed in this policy brief, sending text message reminders is an inexpensive and effective way to improve supervision appointment attendance at a cost of just two cents per text message. Improved attendance can reduce the number of technical violations and helps make efficient use of supervising officers’ time and resources.
As the share of correctional populations under parole and probation continues to grow, making efficient use of supervision agency resources will be increasingly important. While text message reminders may only be a minor part of necessary policy reforms within community supervision, their potential impact should not be overlooked.
Full Policy Brief—