In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Back-End Sentencing and Parole Revocation

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Parole Revocation Trends
  • Factors Explaining Parole Revocation
  • Jurisprudential Questions
  • Policy Interventions to Alter Back-End Sentencing

Criminology Back-End Sentencing and Parole Revocation
Ryken Grattet
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0277


Back-end sentencing refers to the practice of sending formerly incarcerated people back to prison for parole violations. The concept was popularized by Jeremy Travis in his book But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry (2005) to sensitize researchers and policymakers to the overlooked contribution of parole violations and revocations to the increased use of incarceration during the 1980s to early 2000s. European scholars have used the term “back-door” sentences to refer to the same idea. Although revocation results in an action that is analogous to a sentence, procedures employed in revocation hearings operate under a lower standard of evidence—a “preponderance of the evidence”—and have fewer opportunities for representation and appeal than sentences given out in criminal courts. In California, where back-end sentencing had become routine by 1995, nearly half of all entries into prison annually were the result of parole board revocations rather criminal convictions. A portion of the violations that resulted in reincarceration were “technical violations,” which include noncriminal violations of a parolee’s terms of supervision, such as traveling more than 50 miles from their residence, not showing up for appointments, or associating with gang members or criminal peers. Commentators emphasized the ways that the back-end sentencing traps individuals in a “revolving door” between prison and the community supervision phases of punishment, “churning” back and forth between the two. Some research explicitly employs the term “back-end sentencing” whereas other scholarship relevant to the topic focuses on how parole systems deal with parole violators via the revocation process.

General Overviews

Despite decades of debate about front-end sentencing policy and reforms undertaken to address inconsistency, improve deterrence, and add “truth-in-sentencing,” back-end sentencing had largely escaped notice at the time Travis 2005 introduced the concept; Travis 2003 first brought attention to the scope and impact of parole revocation with an examination of the California parole system. Travis 2007 questions whether the practice of back-end sentencing rests on a coherent rationale, and Travis and Christiansen 2006 argues for research into back-end sentencing in order to reform its use. A special issue of the European Journal of Probation offers portraits of the “prisoner recall” policies in nine European counties as well as critical assessments of the practice.

  • Travis, Jeremy. 2003. Parole in California, 1980–2000: Implications for reform. Public Hearing on Parole Reform. Washington, DC: Urban Institute Justice Policy Center.

    Discusses California’s “experiment” with parole policies which resulted in a “revolving door” between parole supervision and prison. Recommends alternative strategies, such as reentry courts, for technical violators.

  • Travis, Jeremy. 2005. But they all come back: Facing the challenges of prisoner reentry. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

    Argues that by placing a large number of people under parole supervision and then returning them to prison for parole violations the United States has created a system of “back-end” sentencing that has contributed to the massive prison growth of the 1980s and 1990s. Calls for research focusing on how the revocation system works and to assess whether it enhances public safety.

  • Travis, Jeremy. 2007. Back-end sentencing: A practice in search of a rationale. Social Research: An International Quarterly 74.2: 631–644.

    Elaborates on the argument about the need for research on “back-end” sentencing and questions whether existing practices rely on a coherent rationale. Proposes that research would provide a basis for a more judicious set of policies that minimize the negative impacts of existing parole revocation practices. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Travis, Jeremy, and Kirsten Christiansen. 2006. Failed reentry: The challenges of back-end sentencing. Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law & Policy 13.2: 249–251.

    Critiques the lack of a national study of back-end sentencing that would assess whether the practice fulfills the public safety goals that typically orient front-end sentencing debates. Proposes a more “minimalist” approach that would restrict reincarceration to circumstances where parole violators have been convicted by criminal courts. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Padfield, Nicola. 2012. Special Issue: European Journal of Probation 4.1: 1–124.

    Reports on Austria, Belgium, England and Wales, France, Scotland, Germany, Italy, Slovenia, and Spain show the variety forms recall policies take. The authors are critical of how recall works in practice, citing its procedural complexity, lack of oversight, and injustice. Several authors highlight the lack of useful statistics on the practice.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.