Sentencing of Technical and Low-Level Supervision Violations: An Analysis of Fixed Effects Across Federal Judicial Districts

AuthorJoseph A. DaGrossa
Published date01 June 2023
Date01 June 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Sentencing of Technical and
Low-Level Supervision
Violations: An Analysis of Fixed
Effects Across Federal Judicial
Joseph A. DaGrossa
A considerable amount of previous research has examined the iatrogenic effects of mass imprison-
ment. This work has often considered the fact that the sentencing of people for low-level supervi-
sion violations is a contributing factor to the prison population. Relatively little work, however, has
examined the factors which specif‌ically inf‌luence the sentencing of probation and parole violators
for technical and other low-level infractions. The present study analyzed over 44,000 cases of indi-
viduals who appeared in federal courts between 2013 and 2017 for relatively minor violations of
federal community-based supervision. Using multilevel analysis to account for the nested quality
of federal sentencing data, the study examined assorted individual-level legal and extra-legal effects
on various sentencing outcomes. Effects were found for gender, having admitted to supervision vio-
lations, and predicate offense of conviction. Implications are presented.
community corrections, corrections, sentencing, courts/law, community-based corrections, corrections
Community-based corrections are a large part of the American correctional system. The 4.7 million
adults under probation or parole supervision today comprise 69% of the total adult correctional pop-
ulation in the United States (Kaeble & Bonczar, 2017).
A substantial number of prisoners in the United States are people who have become incarcerated
because they have had their terms of community-based supervision revoked and are (re)committed to
prison. Approximately one-half of all people admitted to American jails, and one-third of all those
admitted to prison each year, are there as the result of a revocation of community-based supervision
(Carson & Anderson, 2016).
Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice, Rutgers University Camden, Camden, New Jersey, United States
Corresponding Author:
Joseph A. DaGrossa, Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice, Rutgers University Camden, Camden, 405-7 Cooper
Street, New Jersey 08102-1519, United States.
Criminal Justice Review
2023, Vol. 48(2) 187-202
© 2022 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/07340168221078341
Two broad types of violations may lead to the revocation of probation or parole supervision.
The f‌irst involves the commission of a new criminal offense as def‌ined by local, state, or federal
laws. The second involves technical violations of supervision. Technical violations, as def‌ined by
Seiter (2003), refer to non-criminal infractions of the rules of supervision which have been estab-
lished by the court, parole board, or other release-granting authority. Typical examples of such
acts of non-compliance are an excessive number of missed appointments with the probation
off‌icer, unauthorized association with other persons who have criminal records, failure to attend
treatment, or unauthorized travel outside the judicial district (Sieh, 2003). Many violations of
community-based supervision are of the technical variety. In a 2013 study of inmates released
from New Jersey state prison following placement in a halfway house, for instance, Hamilton and
Campbell found that 50% were recommitted within f‌ive years on the strength of technical violations
alone. Noteworthy, some research has found that parolees may engage in new crimes at signif‌icantly
lower rates than offenders released from prison without any parole supervision (Ostermann, 2013),
but are nonetheless at risk of being returned to prison on the basis of technical violations. A study
commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2013, for example, found that paroled inmates in
New Jersey were less likely than maxed-outinmates (51% versus 65%) to be rearrested and
less likely to be convicted of a new crime (38% versus 55%) within three years of release.
However, over 20% of the parolees were eventually returned to prison on the strength of technical
violations alone. Taking into account technical violations, paroled offenders were just as likely as
maxed-out offenders to be recommitted to prison within three years of their release.
Petersilia and Turner (1993) have submitted that probation and parole off‌icials may be inclined to
seek revocation of supervision for offenders who are known to have committed technical violations
but no new crimes because they are relying on a where theres smoke theresf‌ireargument: offend-
ers who feel free to violate the technical conditions of supervision are also inclined to commit new
crimes, and revoking supervision for technical violations likely prevents the eventual commission of
additional crimes. Despite the intuitive appeal of this logic, however, there is evidence against it. In
1984, for example, off‌icials in the state of Washington developed new rules regarding the imposition
of supervision conditions. Rather than imposing a standard list of conditions on offenders placed on
probation, new sentencing guidelines instructed the courts to impose conditions only directly rele-
vant to the instant offense of conviction and the offenders prior criminal record. The result was
that most offenders were only subjected to two or three probation conditions. The guidelines also
stipulated that any revocation resulting from technical violations of supervision could result in a
penalty of no more than 60 days in custody. Research conducted subsequent to the enactment of
the guidelines suggested that technical violations decreased as a result of the new rules, but arrest
rates for new criminal conduct remained roughly the same (Green, 1988). Petersilia and Turner
(1993) posit that if the assumption about the relationship between technical violations and new
crimes were true, arrest rates for new crimes should have risen following the implementation of
the guidelines, since fewer crimes would have been preemptedby incarcerating technical violators.
The fact that arrest rates for new crimes did not increase suggests that technical non-compliance may
not in fact be a harbinger of future criminal activity.
More recently, using a sample of offenders released from prison in Washington State between
2001 and 2008, Drake and Aos (2012) determined that the risk for recidivism was not lowered
among those who were recommitted for technical violations. Relatedly, examining male inmates
committed to prison for parole violations, Orrick and Morris (2015) found that those imprisoned
for technical violations were less likely to engage in prison misconduct than those committed for
engaging in new crimes while under supervision.
There are several reasons why the practice of committing probationers/parolees to prison for low-
level violations (at seemingly little to no benef‌it to public safety) deserves consideration. For one,
there are f‌iscal concerns. The annual cost of incarcerating a person in federal prison exceeds
188 Criminal Justice Review 48(2)

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