How the “supervised release” program pulls tens of thousands of former inmates back into prison without a fair trial
By Jacob Schuman
In the federal criminal justice system, prison is just the beginning of punishment. After prison comes “supervised release,” a set of obligations and restrictions governing an ex-con’s day-to-day schedule, employment, residence, and relationships.
In the best-case scenario, two-thirds of people successfully complete their term of supervised release. Shon Hopwood is an extraordinary example—while serving a decade in prison and three years of supervised release, he went from jailhouse lawyer to Georgetown law professor. He told me that supervised release was not a challenge for him, though despite his achievements, including a scholarship to law school and a published book, there was still “a prevailing attitude among the probation officers that it was only a matter of time before I messed up and went back.” In the end, he said, he had only a few interactions with the probation officers, who seemed more interested in policing violations than offering support.
As a federal public defender, I see the remaining one-third of cases—the worst-case scenarios where people violate their supervised release and get sent back to prison for up to five years. In a recent case, I represented a first-time offender who flawlessly completed two years of a five-year term of supervision. But after he got into a relationship with the wrong person and started using opioids, he was reported by his probation officer, arrested, and held in prison for seven months. After a failed attempt at rehab, his probation officer reported him again, and the judge sentenced him to 18 months’ imprisonment for violating his release by failing to achieve recovery. He’s now serving that sentence in a maximum-security prison, where no addiction treatment is available.
Improving this system depends on Congress, which has now taken on the worthy task of prison reform. Recently, the House of Representatives passed the First Step Act, a bill that makes it easier for inmates to earn early release and expands their access to job training and education. The proposal won an impressively bipartisan 360-59 vote and the support of the White House. While the FSA makes good changes, reform will be incomplete unless it also addresses supervised release, a web of restrictions that ensnares many former prisoners, making successful reentry to society more difficult, not less.