The U.S. has a mass incarceration problem. It is home to 25% of the world’s prison population, which is more than five times its percentage of the world population as a whole. This statistic is problematic for a number of reasons. But what makes it worse is that the reality is so avoidable. One way the U.S. can avoid its mass incarceration problem is through supervised release.
What is Supervised Release?
When a court sentences someone, they can send them to prison for a term of several years. But they can also impose a term of “supervised release” after their incarceration. Supervised release is a form of post-imprisonment supervision made possible by the Sentencing Reform Act. Although it is similar to parole, supervised release differs because it does not replace a portion of a prison sentence (while parole does). Instead, courts impose an additional period of supervised release that you serve after your prison sentence.
For many criminal convictions, federal law expressly requires supervised release. Common examples include convictions for domestic violence, kidnapping, drug trafficking, sex offenses, and other crimes. If you’re convicted of a crime that requires supervised release, the court must order supervised release after your release from prison no matter what. But courts may also impose a term of supervised release even if federal law doesn’t require it. In fact, according to data compiled by the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 2010, federal courts almost always impose supervised release during sentences.
Why Do We Need Improvement?
The benefits of supervised release over prison are obvious. And using supervised release to reduce the prison population has benefits that reach far beyond the lives of prisoners and their loved ones. But that doesn’t mean the practice is flawless.
In 2020, for example, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Rutgers Law School Constitutional Rights Clinic and the Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York sued New York officials for the state’s policies that banned internet and social media use by people required to register as sex offenders during their parole or supervised release. That ban applied even when the individuals didn’t use the internet or social media as part of their offense.
One policy, the Electronic Security and Targeting of Online Predators Act (“e-STOP”), was particularly controversial for its critics. Spearheaded by Governor Andrew Cuomo during his time as the state’s attorney general, e-STOP bans people on the registry from using any social media for any purpose, even if they never misused it in the first place.
When New York adopted the policy in 2008, it targeted common platforms like MySpace, Facebook and AIM. Since then, its reach has gone further, and it now keeps former prisoners from using websites like LinkedIn and even Amazon. For someone just released from prison, limitations on their internet use — including professional platforms like LinkedIn — directly inhibits their rehabilitation efforts.