Abstract: Revocation of community supervision is a defining feature of American criminal law. Nearly 4.5 million people in the United States are on parole, probation, or supervised release, and 1/3 eventually have their supervision revoked, sending 350,000 to prison each year. Academics, activists, and attorneys warn that “mass supervision” has become a powerful engine of mass incarceration.
This is the first Article to study theories of punishment in revocation of community
supervision, focusing on the federal system of supervised release. Federal courts apply a primarily retributive theory of revocation, aiming to sanction defendants for their “breach of trust.” However, the structure, statute, and purpose of supervised release all reflect a utilitarian design justified solely by deterrence and incapacitation, not retribution.
A utilitarian approach to revocation would not just be a theoretical change, but also would have a real-world impact by shortening prison terms, mitigating racial bias, and ending consecutive sentencing. While scholars view courts as the government branch most protective of criminal defendants, the judiciary has played a key role in expanding the state’s power to punish through retributive revocation. Judges may feel a personal stake in sanctioning disrespect of their authority, yet they should revoke supervised release only to deter and incapacitate.