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Supervision

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What Supervision Is

In the federal courts, supervision is

  • a core responsibility of U.S. probation and pretrial services officers, along with investigation.
  • a way to monitor the activities and behavior of people released to the community by the federal courts or paroling authorities.
  • an opportunity to help offenders reintegrate into the community following a period of incarceration.
  • in the case of probation, a punishment that is less severe than imprisonment, but still holds people accountable for breaking the law.
  • an alternative to jail or prison that costs less than incarceration and gives people charged with or convicted of federal crimes the opportunity to live with their families, hold jobs, and be productive members of society.

What It Accomplishes

Supervision addresses several key criminal justice goals. Through supervision, officers: 

  • Enforce the court's order. Officers make sure people on supervision comply with the conditions the court has set for their release to the community.
  • Protect the community. Officers reduce the risk that people on supervision commit crimes. They also reduce the risk that people who are awaiting trial flee rather than return to court as required.
  • Provide treatment and assistance. Officers help people on supervision correct problems that may be linked to their criminal behavior by directing them to services to help them. These services may include substance abuse or mental health treatment, medical care, training, or employment assistance.

How Officers Supervise

In working with people on supervision, officers

  • inform them of what the court expects of them.
  • meet with them at home and at work.
  • monitor their compliance with the conditions the court has set for their release.
  • step in to control and correct if they don't comply.

  • Release Conditions

Release conditions are rules set by the court that people on supervision must follow if they want to remain in the community. The court imposes release conditions to help structure the person's actions and activities. For example, release conditions may 

  • prohibit possession of guns or other weapons.
  • prohibit contact with victims or witnesses.
  • restrict association with certain persons.
  • restrict travel.
  • impose a curfew.

Among the many other release conditions the court may impose are community service, electronic monitoring, employment, mental health treatment, or substance abuse treatment.


  • Community Service

What it is

A release condition that requires people on supervision to perform unpaid work for a civic or nonprofit organization, such as a public library, a soup kitchen, or a conservation program.

How the court uses it

  • As punishment, to restrict the personal liberty of people on supervision and require them to forfeit leisure time.
  • As rehabilitation, to instill a work ethic and help people on supervision develop interests and skills.

The officer's duties

  • Find agencies willing to work with people on supervision.
  • Match people on supervision with suitable community service assignments.
  • Visit the agency to monitor how community service is going and to resolve any problems.
  • Take steps to control and correct the situation if people on supervision
    – don't show up to do their community service.
    – perform their community service assignment unsatisfactorily.
    – behave unacceptably while performing community service.
    – otherwise fail to comply with their release conditions.

The officer's challenges

Not all people on supervision are suitable for community service, including those with 

  • a drug or alcohol addiction.
  • a history of assault or sexual offenses.
  • serious emotional or psychological problems.

What the benefits are

  • Requires people on supervision to give something back to society.
  • Gives them an opportunity to get work experience, job skills, and references.
  • Gives the community free labor and provides services that otherwise might not be available due to lack of funding.
  • Employment

What it is

A release condition that requires people on supervision to work at a lawful occupation unless excused for school, training, or other acceptable reasons.

How the court uses it

  • To make it more likely that people will succeed on supervision because they're gainfully employed.
  • To make it less likely that they'll resort to crime to support themselves.

The officer's duties

  • Build relationships with agencies and individuals in the community who can help people on supervision find and keep jobs, including:
    – nonprofit organizations
    – local and state employment services
    – chambers of commerce
    – employers
  • Direct people on supervision to community resources that prepare them for employment through such services as:
    – skill assessment
    – job training
    – workshops that address resume preparation and job searches
  • Verify their job-seeking efforts.
  • Verify that they are working by:
    – Visiting them at work.
    – Reviewing their pay stubs.
    – Keeping in touch with their employers.
  • Take steps to control and correct the situation if people on supervision:
    – Fail to report to work on time or at all.
    – Lose jobs or change jobs frequently.
    – Maintain a lifestyle beyond their income.
    – Otherwise fail to comply with their release conditions.

The officer's challenges

People on supervision face considerable obstacles to employment, which officers must help them overcome. For example, these individuals

  • may be struggling with problems that they need to address before they can work, including
    – substance abuse;
    – poor health; and
    – a lack of the basic needs in life, such as housing and food
  • may lack the education or skills to get a job.
  • may find employers reluctant to hire them because of their criminal backgrounds and lack of work experience.

What the benefits are

  • Provides educational or vocational training that enables people on supervision to earn a living wage.
  • Enables them to support themselves and their families.
  • Makes it less likely that they'll commit crime.
  • Enables them to pay taxes and any fines and restitution ordered by the court.
  • Location Monitoring

What it is

A supervision condition or sentencing alternative that requires people to be confined to their homes, tracked in the community, or both. They're linked to a monitoring system through an ankle transmitter or a tracking device worn or carried 24 hours a day. With location monitoring, the court determines the extent to which people are restricted case by case, requiring some individuals to remain on 24-hour-a-day lockdown at home and allowing others to leave for preapproved and scheduled absences, such as for work, school, treatment, church, attorney appointments, court appearances, and other court-ordered obligations.

How the court uses it

  • As a way to monitor the location of people on supervision and protect the public from any threat they pose.
  • As an alternative to detention in pretrial cases, to help enhance community safety.
  • As a punishment in post-sentence cases, viewed as more punitive than regular supervision but less restrictive than imprisonment.
  • As a sanction when people violate the conditions of their supervision.

The officer's duties

  • Screen people to determine whether they're eligible for location monitoring. Those who aren't recommended to participate include:
    – Serious or repeat offenders
    – People who previously failed on supervision
  • Check to make sure they're adhering to their approved schedule.
  • Check monitoring equipment to make sure that it's working and to look for signs of tampering.
  • Respond to any alerts that may indicate a problem, including:
    – Unauthorized absence from home
    – Failure to return home after an authorized absence
    – Leaving home early or returning home late
    – Entrance into or near an unauthorized area
  • Step in to control and correct the situation if people on location monitoring:
    – Don't adhere to their approved leave schedule
    – Go to an unapproved location
    – Tamper with equipment
    – Otherwise fail to comply with their release conditions

The officer's challenges

Supervising people on location monitoring is demanding, time-consuming, and sometimes dangerous, requiring

  • frequent phone calls to make sure people are adhering to their approved schedules.
  • frequent, unannounced face-to-face visits.
  • twenty-four-hour, 7-day response to alerts.

What the benefits are

  • Allows people on supervision to continue to support their families and pay their taxes.
  • Costs much less than incarceration.
  • Provides necessary supervision structure.
  • Through technology, provides the capability to verify that an individual either is in an authorized location or is in or near an unauthorized location.
  • Mental Health Treatment

What it is

A condition that requires people on supervision to participate in mental health treatment. Treatment may include such services as psychological/psychiatric evaluations; individual, family, or group counseling; and medication.

How the court uses it

  • To enable officers to monitor people on supervision who suffer from mental disease or defect, which may range from anxiety and depression to more chronic disorders such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or pedophilia.
  • To provide officers with the ability and means to identify, assess, and provide care for these individuals.

The officer's duties

  • Identify people on supervision with mental health problems.
    – By reviewing information in case files
    – By interviewing the individuals and their families
    – By consulting with mental health professionals
  • As ordered by the court, refer them to mental health programs that provide appropriate services.
  • Look for any signs of danger, such as:
    – Suicide threats
    – Indications that they aren't taking prescribed medication
    – Indication that they are withdrawing from everyday life
  • Take steps to control and correct the situation if people on supervision:
    – Fail to take prescribed medications
    – Pose a potential threat to the public
    – Otherwise fail to comply with their release conditions

The officer's challenges

People on supervision who suffer from mental disorders may be:

  • Hampered in their ability to respond to supervision requirements, for example, by:
    – Cognitive impairments
    – Delusions
    – Side effects from medication
  • More difficult to supervise
    – Often requiring more intensive monitoring
    – Often requiring specialized and individualized treatment
  • More unpredictable to supervise
    – If they have a prior history of violence
    – If they suffer from psychotic or substance abuse disorder
    – If they fail to take prescribed medication

What the benefits are

For people who suffer from mental disorders, supervision may

  • stabilize them so that they don't present a danger to themselves or others.
  • enable them to function better in the community.
  • reduce the risk that they'll commit crimes in the future.
  • Substance Abuse Treatment

What it is

A condition that requires people on supervision to participate in substance abuse treatment. Treatment may involve detoxification and consist of individual, family, or group counseling in an outpatient or residential setting. It also includes various methods of testing for the use of drugs.

How the court uses it

  • To enable officers to monitor the use of illegal drugs, prescription drugs, or alcohol by people on supervision.
  • To provide officers with the ability and means to address directly the alcohol or drug abuse of these individuals and to control their behavior.

The officer's duties

  • Identify people on supervision with substance abuse problems.
    – By reviewing information in case files
    – By interviewing the people and their families
    – By observing their behavior
    – By drug testing
  • As ordered by the court, refer them to substance abuse programs that provide appropriate services.
  • Arrange for surprise collection of urine samples and sample testing.
  • Look for any signs of drug or alcohol use.
  • Take steps to control and correct the situation if people on supervision:
    – Submit positive specimens
    – Fail to give specimens
    – Give adulterated specimens
    – Otherwise fail to comply with their release conditions

The officer's challenges

People with substance abuse problems may be especially difficult to supervise.

  • The impact of substance abuse can be devastating. Dependence on drugs or alcohol adversely affects the physical, mental, emotional, or social well-being of people on supervision.
  • There's a direct relationship between substance abuse and crime. In the interest of community safety, it's important that officers detect substance abuse and intervene quickly.

What the benefits are

For people with substance abuse problems, supervision may

  • motivate them to abstain from alcohol and drugs.
  • teach them to cope without relying on these substances.
  • reduce the risk that they'll commit crimes in the future.