Criminology Probation Revocation
Kelly Lyn Mitchell
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0293


Probation revocation is an event in which the court, after finding that one or more probation violations have been proven, rescinds an individual’s probation sentence and executes a jail or prison sentence. Probation is a community-based sanction for criminal behavior, often represented as an alternative to incarceration. A person who is placed on probation serves a defined period in the community, during which the individual is subject to the supervision of a probation officer and must comply with and complete multiple conditions of probation. Probation conditions are requirements an individual is ordered to follow or complete during the period of probation. Conditions can include administrative requirements, such as reporting regularly to one’s probation officer; public safety requirements, such as no contact with the victim; and required programming or services, such as substance abuse treatment. If an individual fails to comply with or complete any of the conditions of probation, the probation officer can allege a probation violation to the court, detailing the noncompliant behavior. There are two main types of probation violations: new crimes and technical violations. When an individual commits a new offense while serving a term of probation, the offense can serve both as the basis for a probation violation and as a charge in a new criminal case. Violations of probation conditions that do not involve new criminal behavior are commonly referred to as “technical violations.” With the recognition of mass incarceration in the United States, attention has more recently been paid to the parallel growth of mass probation and the contribution of probation revocations to prison and jail populations. The Council of State Governments estimates that in 2017, 45 percent of prison admissions were due to probation and parole violations. Thus, more research and attention is being paid to determining how to reduce probation revocations. This article identifies points of discretion leading to probation revocation, discusses issues in defining probation outcomes, summarizes common predictors of probation revocation and recidivism, and discusses the impact of the form and intensity of probation on probation outcomes.

General Overviews

In order to understand probation revocations, it is important to first understand what probation is and how it is used. Petersilia 2011 presents an extremely comprehensive chapter detailing the history of probation and parole, developments in the practice of supervision over time and related empirical evidence, and practical information about the delivery of probation and parole (e.g., the effect of caseload sizes). Klingele 2013 provides an extremely comprehensive review of probation and probation revocations, including the historical development of probation, the prevalence of revocations for technical violations, policy options aimed at reducing the number of probation revocations, and the unintended consequences of some of those policy options. Mitchell and Reitz 2014 details the legal framework of probation in twenty-one US states, demonstrating that “there is tremendous variety in the formal law of probation across American states” (p. 5). Alper, et al. 2016 shows that, compared to Europe, America has exceptionally high probation supervision rates. Wodahl, et al. 2011 details the scope and scale of probation revocations and their impact on prison and jail populations. Council of State Governments Justice Center 2019 provides a more recent snapshot of the contribution of probation revocations to overall prison populations. Phelps and Curry 2017 focuses on describing state-level variations in the management of probation and rates of probation revocation, as well as social determinants of revocation. Phelps 2013 explains how probation can be both an opportunity for diversion from prison and rehabilitation and a pathway into prison, and Phelps 2017 develops a typology of punishment to explain the rise of mass probation. Finally, McNeill 2018 provides a window into how probation supervision is experienced by people on probation, explaining how this form of punishment is pervasive, invading every aspect of one’s life.

  • Alper, Mariel, Alessandro Corda, and Kevin R. Reitz. 2016. American exceptionalism in probation supervision. Data Brief. Minneapolis: Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice.

    Infographic compares probation supervision rates in the United States (as a whole and state by state) with Europe, and shows that US rates are significantly higher than the rates in every European country.

  • Council of State Governments Justice Center. 2019. Confined and costly: How supervision violations are filling prisons and burdening budgets. New York: Council of State Governments.

    Infographic details the contribution of probation and parole violations to the prison population in each US state.

  • Klingele, Cecelia. 2013. Rethinking the use of community supervision. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 103.4: 1015–1070.

    Grounded in law and policy and presented in a very readable style, this would be an excellent introduction to the topic for graduate students.

  • McNeill, Fergus. 2018. Pervasive punishment: Making sense of mass supervision. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group.

    DOI: 10.1108/9781787564657

    In this book, the author uses a variety of sources, including surveys, photographs taken by people on supervision, and musical lyrics written by people on supervision, to study how people on probation in Scotland experience supervision. The book achieves deep insight into individuals’ experiences using original and creative methods.

  • Mitchell, Kelly Lyn, and Kevin R. Reitz. 2014. Profiles in probation revocation: Examining the legal framework in 21 states. Minneapolis: Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice.

    This monograph details the laws and procedural rules that govern probation and probation revocations in twenty-one US states. The study demonstrates the variety of approaches utilized in the states, and allows for cross-state comparison on topics such as forms of supervision, length of supervision, and the imposition and collection of fines and fees for people on probation.

  • Petersilia, Joan. 2011. Community corrections: Probation, parole, and prisoner reentry. In Crime and public policy. Edited by James Q. Wilson and Joan Petersilia, 499–531. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Joan Petersilia has conducted groundbreaking research over her career, having been instrumental in both creating and evaluating different methods of providing supervision (e.g., the intensive supervision model). This chapter is an excellent summary of the information she learned over the course of her career, and provides multiple cites to other important research.

  • Phelps, Michelle S. 2013. The paradox of probation: Community supervision in the age of mass incarceration. Law and Policy 35.1–2: 51–80.

    DOI: 10.1111/lapo.12002

    Using state-level data and case studies, the author develops the paradox of probation model, which states that probation can serve both as a form of diversion from prison and also as a net widener into greater carceral control.

  • Phelps, Michelle S. 2017. Mass probation: Toward a more robust theory of state variation in punishment. Punishment & Society 19.1: 53–73.

    DOI: 10.1177/1462474516649174

    This academic work coined the phrase “mass probation.” Here, the author explains the role of probation in the expansion of the criminal justice system, explaining that the growth of probation eclipses the growth of incarceration, though it has received little to no attention.

  • Phelps, Michelle S., and Caitlin Curry. 2017. Supervision in the community: Probation and parole. In Oxford research encyclopedia of criminology and criminal justice. Edited by Henry N. Pontell. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Good primer on probation and parole in the United States and Europe. It includes major research findings on factors that influence revocation rates, and describes how revocation patterns are tied to social inequality. This piece can serve as a basic starting point for understanding community supervision, and would be appropriate for both undergraduate and graduate students.

  • Wodahl, Eric J., Robbin Ogle, and Cary Heck. 2011. Revocation trends: A threat to the legitimacy of community-based corrections. Prison Journal 91.2: 207–226.

    DOI: 10.1177/0032885511404356

    Couched within an article about organizational legitimacy, this article clearly links increases in probation revocations to prison and jail population growth. Using national statistics, the authors describe the size and scope of probation revocations, and detail the decline in probation success rates over time. They discuss the need for community corrections to address revocations in order to maintain legitimacy as a primary method of addressing criminal behavior.

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.