Parole Officer Decision-Making Before Parole Revocation: Why Context Is Key When Delivering Correctional Services

Published date01 April 2022
Date01 April 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2022, Vol. 33(3) 273 –297
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/08874034211035494
Parole Officer Decision-
Making Before Parole
Revocation: Why Context
Is Key When Delivering
Correctional Services
Michael Ostermann1 and Jordan M. Hyatt2
Back-end sentencing is the discretionary, administrative process through which
individuals on parole are returned to prison for violating the requirements of their
supervised release. Parole officers play a crucial role in this process as they are the
witnesses to the rule-breaking behaviors of people on parole supervision and ultimately
must initiate the back-end sentencing process. This study explores predictors of
parole officer decision-making when determining whether to consider a person for
revocation or to gear programmatic community-based resources toward them in an
attempt to decrease the likelihood of their eventual revocation. Our results indicate
that if people released to parole are front-loaded programmatic resources as a part
of their release conditions from prison, the odds that parole officers subsequently
gear community-based programs toward them decreases by approximately 60%.
Other factors such as demographics, actuarial risk levels, and criminal history were
not significantly predictive of officer decision-making in this context.
parole, revocation, community supervision, back-end sentencing, corrections
The revocation of community supervision is a major driver of prison admission rates
across the United States. According to the most recent data of Bureau of Justice
Statistics, in 2018, approximately 30% of admissions to state prisons and 10% of those
1Rutgers University, Newark, NJ, USA
2Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Michael Ostermann, Rutgers University, 123 Washington Street, Newark, NJ 07102, USA.
1035494CJPXXX10.1177/08874034211035494Criminal Justice Policy ReviewOstermann and Hyatt
274 Criminal Justice Policy Review 33(3)
to federal prisons were for post-custody supervision violations (Carson, 2020). These
violations included the commission of new crimes by individuals on parole or proba-
tion, violations of the rules and regulations of supervised release, or both. With
approximately 878,000 people being supervised on parole and 3,540,000 on probation
by yearend 2018 (Maruschak & Minton, 2020), the potential return of people under
community-based supervision back to carceral settings presents a significant chal-
lenge for corrections officials and public policymakers alike.
Technical parole revocations typically occur when an individual has violated the
general and/or special conditions of their release but has not committed or been
charged with a new criminal offense.1 These triggering infractions can include but are
not limited to missing appointments with treatment providers and/or parole officers,
changing residences without informing the parole officer, failing drug tests, failing to
complete assigned programs, and/or breaking curfews. Technical parole revocation
decisions are quasi-judicial in that they are often adjudicated by parole boards and so
are administrative decisions rather than judicial determinations of criminal guilt. Steen
and colleagues (2012) have likened this decision-making process to one that is pre-
dominantly driven by managerial, rather than moral or safety, concerns. Where judi-
cial adjudication is a constitutionally governed process of weighing evidence,
considering adversarial perspectives, and determining proportionate and effective
social responses, administrative decision-making emphasizes the ongoing manage-
ment and operation of a system (p. 75). Thus, policymakers interested in impacting
either prison admission numbers or offending rates for people on parole are better
positioned to meaningfully impact the administrative decision-making practices of
parole boards when compared to the limited prospects for constraining judicial discre-
tion (Greene, 2003; Steen et al., 2012).
Within the criminological literature, the practice of sending individuals to prison
for violations of the terms of their parole supervision has been referred to as back-end
sentencing (Travis, 2007). However, surprisingly little scholarly energy has been dedi-
cated to the study of the series of decisions that comprise the back-end sentencing
process. Studies have typically focused on the decision-making practices of hearing
officers and/or parole board panel members, those that ultimately decide whether to
remand the supervised person back to an incarcerated setting, and individual-level
correlates of revocation (e.g., Grattet et al., 2008; Steen & Opsal, 2007). For example,
Lin and colleagues’ (2010) study of parole revocation decisions rendered in California
explored the individual, organizational, and community predictors of parole board
decision makers for criminal, technical, and absconding violation cases. Largely
absent from the existing line of inquiry that was specifically developed to explore the
back-end sentencing process is an explicit consideration of the actions (and potential
inaction) of parole officers who must first, before any possible board action, decide to
initiate the back-end sentencing process. Much of the existing empirical work focuses
on predictors of the issuance of parole violations, which communicate that paroled
people are engaging in undesirable behaviors that may lead to revocation and potential
back-end sentencing. Analyses that explicitly focus upon, and attempt to disentangle,
officer behaviors before initiating revocation proceedings should receive greater

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