Just the Facts is a feature that highlights issues and trends in the Judiciary based on data collected by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO).
In the federal system, people placed on supervision (i.e., a term of supervised release or probation) can have the supervision term revoked for either failure to comply with supervision conditions or an arrest for new criminal activity. When a person under supervision fails to comply with release conditions, which in the community corrections context is labelled a technical violation, that person can be sent back to federal prison.
Technical violations encompass a range of activities in which a supervisee violates the terms of release but does not commit new crimes. Examples include failing to report to a probation officer, failing a drug test, refusing to engage in mandated substance abuse, mental health, or sex offender treatment, and possessing weapons or other forms of contraband (e.g., illegal drugs). Conduct leading to a technical violation is not always minor and, in some instances, may present a risk to public safety. However, research shows that relatively few people revoked from federal supervision because of technical violations are sentenced to a term of incarceration in a federal prison (that is, an incarceration sentence exceeding six months).
The AO’s Probation and Pretrial Services Office (PPSO) conducted a study of cases closed in 2021 that resulted in revocation because of technical violations of supervision. Key findings from this research include:
- Nearly 30 percent of all closed cases in 2021 were revoked from supervision.
- Revocations resulting from solely technical violations – with no accompanying arrests for new crimes – accounted for 13 percent of all cases closed.
- About 5 percent of cases closed in 2021 were revoked for technical violations and received an incarceration sentence of more than 6 months.
PPSO examined the number of revocations that occur for technical reasons alone and the percentage of those revocations that result in incarcerations of more than six months. PPSO extracted data on supervision violations – technical violations or arrests for new crimes – from the federal probation and pretrial case management system for the most recent fiscal year available, fiscal year 2021. The violation data were matched with case closure types that provided information on the percentage of violations associated with revocations and, importantly, whether the revocation occurred solely for technical reasons or was accompanied by an arrest for new criminal activity.
Facts and Figures
The chart provides an overview of cases closed during fiscal year 2021 in which a violation was recorded, a revocation resulted for solely technical reasons, and an incarceration term of more than six months was imposed. Of the 32,123 cases closed, 60 percent involved a technical violation, meaning that the supervisee failed to comply with supervision conditions or was rearrested for new crimes. About half of all cases with violations, or 30 percent of all closed cases, resulted in a revocation from supervision. Of those cases closed through a revocation, 66 percent, or 20 percent of the total, were revoked for technical violations, while the remainder were revoked for new crimes.
New criminal activity is typically not associated with revocations for technical violations. But that is not the complete picture. An examination of the entirety of violation activity for cases revoked for technical reasons revealed that about 34 percent also recorded new criminal activity. When we take these cases into account, the percentage of revocations that resulted solely from technical violations is reduced to about 43 percent of all revocations (versus 66 percent). Put another way, 4,111 cases (13 percent of all cases closed) were revoked from supervision exclusively due to technical violations. Of those 4,111 cases, 1,713 (representing 5 percent of cases closed) were revoked for technical violations alone and involved incarceration sentences of more than six months. Generally, in the federal system, incarceration sentences of over six months result in periods of confinement within a federal prison, while sentences of six months or less are served in local jails.
PPSO also compared the distribution of cases with violations in which supervision was revoked to that of cases with violations in which supervision was not revoked. Among those cases in which supervision was revoked, 74 percent involved four or more violations prior to supervision being revoked. In comparison, 41 percent of the cases in which supervision was not revoked involved four or more violations. Moreover, cases in which supervision was revoked averaged 10 violations, while cases without revocations averaged six violations. Nearly 60 percent of supervisees who were revoked solely for technical violations received incarceration terms of six months or less, and 15 percent – 2 percent of all cases closed – were incarcerated for more than one year.
This research showed that revocations for technical violations had relatively negligible impacts on federal prison populations. About 30 percent of all cases closed during fiscal year 2021 resulted in a revocation, and 43 percent of those revocations showed no accompanying criminal activity. People revoked solely for technical violations and sentenced to periods of confinement of six months or more represented 5 percent of all case closures. Additionally, cases with revocations showed higher rates of violation activity than their non-revoked counterparts.