Unveiling the Web: How Mass Incarceration Gives Rise to Mass Supervision

The phenomenon of “mass incarceration” has been studied by social scientists and legal scholars for decades, and the term has filtered down into the public consciousness. However, mass incarceration necessarily comes with an under-discussed byproduct - known as mass supervision. As the criminal justice system reaches out and touches increasingly more Oklahomans it is only natural that more individuals are also being supervised in our communities. Oklahoma has tried the “tough on crime” approach, with the fourth longest average probation sentences in the country. However, the use of excessively long probation terms, paired with a lack of statewide standardization of practices, has not made us any safer. Rather, it has only served  to continue to destabilize our communities while making the jobs of our probation and parole officers nearly impossible. Like all facets of our criminal legal system, community supervision represents both a massive problem for our State and a huge opportunity. We can change the status quo and ensure that community supervision is solely focused on reducing crime and restricting individual rights only to the extent necessary to keep the public safe.

What is Community Supervision?

Community supervision can be divided into two sub parts: parole and probation. Parole involves supervision after an individual is released from incarceration, granting individuals an opportunity to reintegrate into society under specific guidelines and supervision. Probation, more commonly used in Oklahoma, was originally designed as an alternative to imprisonment, allowing individuals to serve their sentences while remaining within their communities, subject to court-ordered conditions. Community supervision often comes with regular drug tests, check-ins, curfews, and in some cases, even around the clock electronic monitoring.  These conditions can create very restrictive financial burdens on top of barriers to employment and housing that come with a criminal record. One of the most common probation conditions includes restrictions on associations with other convicted felons which further limits their housing and employment options. For example, Oklahomans with a felony record are five times more likely to be unemployed and ten times more likely to experience homelessness than other Oklahomans. Importantly, community supervision is not limited to those who committed a serious offense, but rather due to its use as a substitute for imprisonment, many individuals being supervised in our communities committed a low-level offense. Nationwide nearly a third of individuals on probation committed a misdemeanor and the most common offense types are drug and property crimes. As a result, the punishment that comes attached with a community supervision sentence rarely fits the crime.  

Community Supervision Sentences Are Too Long

The average probation sentence in Oklahoma spans 42 months, making it one of the nation's longest probation terms. Unfortunately, these extended sentences contribute to heavy caseloads for probation officers. This can lead to significant stress and challenges in providing effective supervision and support. The average supervision caseload for a probation officer in the United States is alarmingly high at over 100 per officer, straining their ability to offer personalized attention to each individual on probation.

Overworked and stressed probation officers face an increased risk of violence in their line of work. Surveys reveal that around half of officers experience work-related violence or threats. Such conditions have an adverse impact on officer well-being and may hinder their ability to effectively guide and rehabilitate individuals under their supervision. Supervision officers cannot effectively do the work as intended due to high caseloads which has negative downstream effects for the public and the individual being supervised. Overburdened supervision officers without adequate resources may mean that the individuals being supervised only have contact with the system for drug tests and check-ins, instead of personalized guidance and resources to set individuals up for success. Studies have consistently shown that lower supervision caseloads lead to better outcomes for the individual being supervised including lower rearrest rates, lower probation violation rates and a lower number of average jail days.

Public Safety

While many assume that lengthy probation terms reduces the chance of reoffense, research suggests otherwise. Much like long prison sentences, extended probation sentences do not deter individuals from committing crimes. Instead the scientific literature is clear - the intensity of community supervision has no effect on future arrests. Meaning that supervision can be overwhelming and constant - and not have any effect on public safety. The same holds true for specific conditions of supervision including curfews and restrictions on association with felons. In fact, in some cases, these extended probation terms act as a disincentive to engage in rehabilitative programming while exacerbating challenges in obtaining housing and employment, which, in turn, can lead to higher rates of recidivism.

To optimize community safety, it is crucial to focus on the initial phase of community supervision. Individuals who are likely to return to crime while under supervision will typically do so quickly, often within the first year on parole or probation. Shortening supervision periods can enable probation officers to concentrate their efforts and resources on this crucial period. Oklahoma can simultaneously reduce public safety risks and save money by removing individuals who do not require close supervision from crowded caseloads.

Evidence-Based Practices

To create a more effective and humane community supervision system, policymakers must embrace evidence-based practices. Currently, Oklahoma has no statewide standardization of supervision practices meaning someone in Cimarron County may have a much different probation experience than those in Oklahoma County. Enacting evidence based best practices across the state can ensure that rural Oklahomans are not being left behind. For example, research suggests that punishment-only systems do not lead to lasting behavior change. Instead, effective programs prioritize positive reinforcement over negative sanctions, with a recommended ratio of 4 to 1. Other evidence based practices focus on targeting crime-producing needs that correlate with criminal conduct, including both the personal  and environmental factors that create crime.

Finally, effective programs must be action-oriented rather than merely talk-oriented. Individuals need concrete strategies and support to address their challenges and make meaningful changes. Such interventions are more likely to lead to sustainable behavior change and successful reintegration into society strengthening our communities and the State as a whole. Instituting these practices across the State will go a long way to ensuring that all Oklahomans get a chance to succeed.


Our community supervision system demands continuous examination and improvement to ensure that we are being as effective and equitable as possible. While probation offers a viable alternative to incarceration, its potential benefits can be compromised by lengthy sentences that strain probation officers and fail to enhance public safety. Ultimately, this area deserves our attention because over half of all individuals within the criminal justice system in Oklahoma are being supervised in their communities.

Policymakers should consider implementing evidence-based practices across the State that prioritize positive reinforcement and address the underlying factors contributing to criminal behavior. By doing so, we can create a more efficient and humane community supervision system that promotes rehabilitation, supports successful reintegration into society, and ensures everyone within our communities is safe. Through informed research and thoughtful policy decisions, we can strive for a criminal justice system that fosters individual growth and strengthens communities.