Pros and Cons of Increasing Officer Authority to Impose or Remove Conditions of Supervision
Enacted: Jan 2001
How much authority should line officers have to impose punitive conditions or lessen the rigors of existing sanctions without review by the sentencing or paroling authority? Is there a current trend for an increase in this authority? Have some field officers chosen to modify certain conditions of supervision on an informal basis in the absence of specific, official authorization? Does this issue have the potential for undermining the authority of judges or parole boards?
Current Policies and Actual Practices
In a recent survey of APPA Board members, less than half (46%) of respondents indicated that field officers have authority to modify conditions of supervision. However, a substantial majority (69%) felt that officers modified conditions "informally." It is apparent that, in most jurisdictions, line officers feel justified in altering some aspects of an offender's supervision strategy--regardless of whether this is a matter of written policy. Two states, Oregon and South Carolina, have programs that provide specific guidelines for officer imposed sanctions. In South Carolina, for example, field officers have a range of options which include:
- Placing the offender in a half-way house for up to 75 days;
- Placing an offender in residential or non-residential treatment;
- Restructuring the supervision "plan of action;"
- Increasing supervision contacts;
- Ordering up to 40 hours of community service
As is the case in the examples noted above, the primary intent is to impose a basically punitive sanction in response to an offender's violation. There appears to be little interest in lessening the severity of conditions of supervision without some type of judicial, or board, review.
Pro: Officers Need Authority So They Can Be Credible
The basic argument for officer-imposed modification of supervision conditions is that, in encouraging a proactive and proportionate response to a violation, offenders are held accountable for their actions in a timely manner. The officer need not spend valuable time in obtaining a warrant and scheduling a case to be heard before a judge or board unless it is absolutely necessary. Providing an immediate response to a violation, such as a positive urine screen, gives the officer the flexibility to explore treatment options that will hold the offender accountable, and effectively address his or her substance abuse before it escalates. (In the APPA survey, 78% felt that expanding officer authority would increase effectiveness.)
Con: The Potential for Abuse and Conflict with Judges or Boards Outweighs Advantages
Most opponents of increasing officer authority point out that it can cause confusion on the part of the offender as to who has jurisdiction. Some feel that a sanction has more impact when it is imposed by a court or board. There is also some concern that the potential for abuse or misuse will raise liability concerns. Lastly, some opponents feel that maintaining a good relationship with judges and boards is more important than increasing officer response options. (The APPA survey revealed that 16% of respondents were of the opinion that authority should not be increased.)
The concept of increasing officer authority to impose conditions of supervision is valid and deserves support. to promote consistency in the response to violations, detailed policies and procedures should be established and included in a comprehensive training program for all relevant personnel. The current practice in many states of agent-imposed sanctions on an informal basis can result in "vague, misunderstood, and often misapplied discretion" instead of a "policy-driven, risk-based...violation process."1
1 Stroker, Richard P. "A Reassessment of Violations Policy and Practice." Community Corrections Quarterly. 1991.