Cover: Community Supervision in a Digital World

Community Supervision in a Digital World

Challenges and Opportunities

Published Jul 26, 2021

by Joe Russo, Michael J. D. Vermeer, Dulani Woods, Brian A. Jackson

Download eBook for Free

FormatFile SizeNotes
PDF file 1 MB

Use Adobe Acrobat Reader version 10 or higher for the best experience.

Research Questions

  1. What are the high-level challenges agencies face with respect to managing supervisee use of technology?
  2. What are the challenges related to operational practice?
  3. What are the challenges and needs related to tools and training?
  4. What are the challenges related to the balance between good supervision and potential overreach?
  5. What evidence is needed to inform the field regarding best practices?
  6. What are some of the important issues or pain points that are not sufficiently covered in the other areas?

Delivering effective community supervision services has always been challenging. However, recent societal shifts have raised the stakes. The changing nature of crime, along with an increase in digital literacy among the general population, has resulted in a greater number of tech-savvy individuals under community supervision. This presents unique challenges and opportunities for supervision agencies. A complete ban on supervisee access to technology is generally not justifiable (or practical) except in the most severe circumstances. Therefore, agencies must assess and manage the risk to public safety from supervisees' technology use. Managing an individual's digital activities not only can deter and detect new crimes but also can help officers identify problematic behaviors, allowing them the opportunity to intervene before a negative outcome occurs. Despite the increasing need to effectively manage supervisees' virtual presence, many agencies struggle with this imperative.

To examine this issue, the National Institute of Justice, supported by the RAND Corporation in partnership with the University of Denver, hosted a virtual workshop in June 2020 to discuss the challenges related to supervising individuals in an increasingly digital world. The participants identified a list of 23 needs related to providing community supervision services in a digital world, 13 of which were ranked as high priority. These needs were sorted into the five categories of organizational issues, tools and training, policy and practice, legal and privacy concerns, and research.

Key Findings

The field of community supervision lacks adequate guidance on how to go about establishing the capacity of digital management

  • Participants emphasized that agencies need guidance to better incorporate the information gleaned from digital management efforts into a supervisee's case management plan.
  • Many agencies lack the internal capacity to perform digital management techniques, and they might not be aware of—or might not be effectively leveraging—partnerships to help overcome these deficiencies.

Officers need a clear way to identify supervisees' cyber risk

  • Participants noted the need for best practices, policies, and templates for a digital intake process to help establish a supervisee's individual baseline for cyber risk. This process might include an inventory of the individual's electronic devices, email accounts, social media profiles, and other relevant information.

Every community supervision officer should have at least a rudimentary level of knowledge and skills related to digital management of supervisees

  • A national training curriculum that is designed specifically for probation and parole officers is required. Ideally, this training should be free of charge or low-cost and should be updated frequently to account for changes in the technology landscape.
  • According to the participants, monitoring supervisees' activity on social networking sites (e.g., Facebook, YouTube, Instagram) can yield important intelligence, but this approach is underutilized.

Different community supervision agencies approach digital management in different ways

  • Participants argued that stakeholders need education highlighting the importance of managed access to technology for prosocial activities, as opposed to outright bans on using the internet.


  • Case studies should be developed that promote the benefits of partnerships with external resources (e.g., local and state law enforcement officers, Internet Crimes Against Children task forces, Regional Computer Forensics Laboratories). Effective strategies to foster these collaborations also should be developed.
  • The costs and benefits of a specialized-staff approach for advanced digital management should be evaluated, including the identification of specific competencies for a forensic examiner in the community supervision context.
  • A standard national training curriculum on the risks and how to manage them should be developed for community supervision officers. Training should include approved methods of previewing devices in the field and when and how to seize evidence. This training must be offered and updated regularly.
  • User-friendly preview or triage tools should be developed. These tools should be designed for nontechnical officers to scan electronic devices (e.g., smartphones, tablets, computers). Tools must be free or low-cost and sustainable (e.g., supported, regularly updated).
  • Best practices, policies, and templates for a digital intake process (and periodic updates) should be developed that include all of the devices to which the supervisee has access.
  • Educational materials should be developed for stakeholders that illustrate the importance of access to technology for prosocial activities (as opposed to outright bans), the tools available to agencies to manage risks, and the need to allow for management according to an assessment of risk.
  • Research should be conducted to examine the feasibility of validated assessment tools that are specifically designed to identify the risk of cyber-related criminal activity.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was prepared for the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and conducted by the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

This document and trademark(s) contained herein are protected by law. This representation of RAND intellectual property is provided for noncommercial use only. Unauthorized posting of this publication online is prohibited; linking directly to this product page is encouraged. Permission is required from RAND to reproduce, or reuse in another form, any of its research documents for commercial purposes. For information on reprint and reuse permissions, please visit

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.