January 1, 2013
Community supervision, whether in the form of probation or postrelease supervision, is ordinarily framed as an alternative to incarceration. For this reason, legal reformers intent on reducing America’s disproportionately high incarceration rates often urge lawmakers to expand the use of community supervision, confident that diverting offenders to the community will significantly reduce overreliance on incarceration. Yet, on any given day, a significant percentage of new prisoners arrive at the prison gates not as a result of sentencing for a new crime, but because they have been revoked from probation or parole. It is therefore fair to say that, in many cases, community supervision is not an alternative to imprisonment but only a delayed form of it. This Article examines the reasons why community supervision so often fails and challenges popular assumptions about the role community supervision should play in efforts to reduce overreliance on imprisonment. While probation and post-release supervision serve important purposes in many cases, they are often imposed on the wrong people and executed in ways that predictably lead to revocation. To decrease the overuse of imprisonment, sentencing and correctional practices should therefore limit, rather than expand, the use of community supervision in three important ways. First, terms of community supervision should be imposed in fewer cases, with alternatives ranging from fines to unconditional discharge to short jail terms imposed instead. Second, conditions of probation and post-release supervision should be imposed sparingly and only when they directly correspond to a risk of reoffense. Finally, terms of community supervision should be limited in duration, extending only long enough to facilitate a period of structured reintegration after sentencing or following a term of incarceration.