Probation officer discretion in monitoring and violating supervision conditions

AuthorEsther Scheibler,Ebony Ruhland
Published date01 June 2022
Date01 June 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Probation ofcer
discretion in monitoring
and violating
supervision conditions
Ebony Ruhland
and Esther Scheibler
School of Criminal Justice, University of Cincinnati, USA
Probation is a sentence served in the community and includes a number of supervision
conditions. If the conditions are violated, individuals could receive a sanction, includ-
ing revocation. Not every violation, however, may receive a consequence. Probation
ofcers have discretion for how they manage individuals on the caseloads. This study
used qualitative data from two departments in a MidWest state in the United States,
one rural and one urban, to explore ofcer decision-making in supervision. It is crit-
ical to examine these factors due to the high number of individuals revoked from pro-
bation each year. The study ndings illustrate the factors ofcers use in monitoring
conditions, as well as in violations and revocations.
revocations, probation conditions, probation ofcers, probation, discretion
Discretion is a cornerstone of criminal justice practices in the United States (Walker,
1993) and in European Countries (Beyens and Persson, 2018). Discretion and its
connection to punishment decisions have been studied with police ofcers
(Leinfelt, 2006), prosecutors (Davis, 2008), judges (Albonetti, 1991), and with cor-
rectional ofcersdecisions to punish within prisons (Steiner and Cain, 2017). This
Corresponding Author:
Ebony Ruhland, School of Criminal Justice, University of Cincinnatti, 2610 McMicken Cir, Cincinnati, Ohio
45221, USA.
Article The Journal of Communit
and Criminal Justice
Probation Journal
2022, Vol. 69(2) 177196
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/02645505211041578
current study focuses on discretionary decisions of probation ofcers as it relates to
noncompliance. Probation is often seen as an alternative to incarceration, yet others
have identied it as just a delayed prison sentence due to the number of individuals
revoked, and particularly for technical violations (Phelps, 2013).
Individuals in the United States have multiple conditions that they must follow
while on supervision (Brilliant, 1989; Doherty, 2016; Travis and Stacey, 2010),
and not complying with them could result in a violation and eventually a revocation.
However, not every infraction may constitute a violation as these decisions are often
at the discretion of the probation ofcer (Jones and Kerbs, 2007). In this study, we
explore ofcer discretion concerning their practices of monitoring conditions,
issuing violations, and ultimately deciding to revoke. Relatedly, we also explore if
ofcers believe they have sufcient community resources that can be used to
address violations.
Probation violations and revocations
Probation is the most frequently used correctional sanction in the United States. Over
3.5 million individuals are on probation compared to 2.1 million in prisons and jails
(Maruschak and Minton, 2020). One primary driver of the incarcerated population
comes from backdoor sentencingdue to violations from probation and parole
(Doherty, 2013; Medina, 2017). Each year approximately 350,000 individuals
on supervision are returned to jail or prison, frequently for technical violations
(Pew Charitable Trusts, 2018). Technical violations are often non-criminal violations
(Sieh, 2003). The structure and the administrative duties of probation vary across
and even within states (Phelps, 2013). These structural variations make it challen-
ging to examine and compare probation practices through large-scale studies.
Most probation ofcers have some degree of discretion on how to handle viola-
tions (Blay et al., 2018; Jones and Kerbs, 2007). However, if an individual commits
a new crime while on probation, ofcers may have less discretion (OLeary and
Clear, 1984). With technical violations, probation ofcers could address it with
various options depending on the violation and the characteristics of the individual
who committed the violation (Burke, 1993). Ofcer orientations and philosophies
can inuence how they manage their caseloads and respond to violations. If an
ofcer is more therapeutic/rehabilitative focused, they may be more apt to work
with the individual when there are violations by connecting them to treatment and
other community programs (Klockars, 1973). However, if an ofcer is more
law-enforcement-minded, they may view their role primarily as monitoring compli-
ance of conditions and incarcerating individuals when conditions are not followed
(Klockars, 1973). Other studies have identied that risk level mattered in ofcers
determination on whether to violate or not. A study including 129 probation ofcers
supervising adults in Lithuania found that probation ofcers tended to be more puni-
tive for moderate-risk individuals who breached probation when compared to
low-risk offenders (Nikartas et al., 2021).
178 Probation Journal 69(2)

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