Supervised release in the federal system is roughly comparable to parole in a state system, with one big difference. In parole, the defendant is being offered a benefit. If they comply with the terms of their parole, they get to serve part of their sentence in the community rather than in prison. Supervised release is a separate part of the sentence altogether.
There is no parole in the federal system. Supervised release is not a benefit in exchange for time behind bars. All federal prisoners must complete their full terms of imprisonment and then complete a period of supervised release, if that is ordered.
The distinction is important in a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. An Oklahoma man was convicted of possessing child pornography in federal court and sentenced to:
- 38 months in prison
- 10 years of supervised release
- Required registry as a sex offender
When he was accused of violating his supervised release terms, a federal law only required the judge to find that it was more likely than not that he had done so. After so finding, the judge sentenced the Oklahoma man to five additional years behind bars.
The Oklahoma man has now asked the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that federal law unconstitutional. He has a good argument — the high court has ruled several times that criminal sentences cannot be lengthened without a new finding of guilt by a jury — beyond a reasonable doubt.
Justices ask why this law doesn’t violate their prior precedents
The court heard oral arguments on the case on Feb. 26, and their questions gave the strong impression that they agreed with the Oklahoma man.
According to SCOTUSblog, most of the justices were pointed when questioning the lawyer defending the law. For example, Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked whether he could point to any other situation in which courts can lengthen criminal sentences based merely on the “more likely than not” standard. The lawyer tried to point to parole and probation, but Sotomayor pointed out that the sentences are not lengthened after parole or probation violations — the defendant merely loses the benefit of serving part of their sentence out in the community. Justice Brett Kavanaugh agreed.
Several of the justices seemed to think that, in order to actually lengthen a criminal sentence, a jury would have to find, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant had violated the terms of his supervised release. This could mean that all allegations of supervised release violations require jury trials.
Only Justice Samuel Alito seemed dubious, concerned that requiring jury trials could “bring down the entire supervised release system.”
A ruling on the issue is expected by summer.