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February 2006

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Gang Member Supervision Growing Part of Job for Probation Officers

According to the Department of Justice’s 2002 National Youth Gang Survey, approximately 731,500 gang members and 21,500 gangs were active in the U.S. in 2002. Those totals don’t include prison gangs, motorcycle gangs, and adult gangs.

While gang membership is not a federal offense, the crimes committed by gangs—largely drug trafficking, homicides, and other violent offenses—often bring gang members into the federal system and under the supervision of federal probation officers.

As an indicator of the scale of gang member supervision, this summer the Office of Probation and the Office of Pretrial Services in the Central District of California will host the first National Symposium on Gang Information for U.S. Pretrial and Probation Officers.

“This will be an important and timely event,” says Chief Probation Officer Loretta Martin (C. D. Calif.), “because the supervision of gang members is now part of the job for nearly every probation and pretrial services officer in the federal courts, as gang members are more transient.” The symposium will cover gang intelligence and history, officer safety, supervision strategies, terrorism, gangs on the East Coast, California, and in prison, organized crime, and much more.

Of course, probation and pretrial services offices are continually looking for better ways to supervise and track gang members.

“Gangs have always been pretty active in New Jersey,” says Chief Probation Officer Chris Maloney, “and we have everything: biker gangs, hate groups, traditional and nontraditional organized crime, and youth gangs. Probation officers in the district usually rely on the pre-sentence investigation and regular contact with law enforcement to learn if the offender is a documented gang member. But gang affiliation really doesn’t change supervision.” Typically, offenders with extensive records are assigned to Intensive Supervision Specialists, whose caseloads allow for closer supervision and who receive advanced training through such groups as the Middle Atlantic-Great Lakes Law Enforcement Network (MAGLOCEN).

As in New Jersey, gang members in the Southern District of Indiana are assigned to special offender specialists. Chief Probation Office Barb Roembke brings in speakers and members of the local gang task force to train officers in the identification of gang colors, graffiti, and tattoos. The district also gets help from an expert on the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang, when these gang members are under supervision.

The Western District of Missouri partners with local law and city task forces to exchange information on gang members. When gang members are under supervision, says Chief Probation Officer Stephen Donnelly, the district’s Project Nightlight sends teams of three probation officers for routine home visits, usually at night. Not only is there safely in numbers, but officers can talk with members of the family while the offender is being interviewed.

In the Northern District of Illinois, although there is no specialized program for gangs, there is a referral service to help people who want to get out of gangs have their gang tattoos removed. According to Chief Probation Officer Richard Tracy, training of officers in gang identification is largely for safety reasons. “The main focus in supervision,” adds Tracy, “is to help them get employment—the one thing that gets them away from gangs.”

The Office of Probation for the Central District of California is rightfully proud of a program it calls Reorientation and Peer sessions (RAP), started in its Inglewood Office in 2000, which has enjoyed a high success rate. “RAP is designed for high risk offenders, usually gang members, who struggle with lifestyle changes,” says Martin.

Federal probation offices nationwide can call on the Sacramento Intelligence Unit or SIU. The Unit, which has been active for over 15 years, is a clearinghouse for gang activity. SIU has a wealth of information on nearly every major gang in the country, including information about their origin, founders, bylaws, and codes. SIU also is a great resource for tattoo interpretation and identification, hand signs, and other forms of non-verbal gang communication.

Headed by the Bureau of Prisons, SIU’s personnel is pulled from BOP, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the California Department of Corrections, and the federal probation system. Paul Garber and Kathleen Boyd are the federal probation presence at SIU.

When an inmate is released with a Security Threat Group (STG) designation—a designation triggered by gang affiliation and other factors—SIU prepares a profile of the offender and sends it to the probation officer in the district where the inmate will be under supervision. Garber and Boyd prepare 3,500 to 4,000 profiles annually. Approximately 15 federal probation districts use SIU resources extensively while other districts are periodic users of SIU’s services.

“Recently,” said Garber, “a probation officer suspected, based upon tattoos, that a newly released offender was affiliated with a gang. She e-mailed me photos of the tattoos and I shared them with an SIU intelligence officer who, in a matter of moments, was able to determine the offender was connected with the Tango Blast, a Texas-based gang.

SIU also can provide an offender’s institutional history to the probation officer. This can be beneficial when assessing an offender’s circle of associations.

“Association is probably the biggest issue,” says U.S. Probation Officer Tom Caruso, who is Drug and Alcohol Treatment Manager in the Eastern District of Missouri. “It’s hard to break that support system a gang member has with his or her former gang.” Caruso, who had eight years with the state juvenile courts before joining the federal probation office, says, “The offenders we’re seeing are getting younger. We have to give them alternatives to gang life, including employment and education.”

Last summer, in an effort to better track gang activity, law enforcement agencies in Caruso’s district began meeting monthly to exchange information. Caruso also is tracking known gang members who are on probation by cross-referencing his list of probationers with local law enforcement's records. He hopes to automate the list so it updates as soon as an offender is released from prison.

The Utah Probation Office has turned to the web to monitor offenders, increase cooperation with local law enforcement, and educate and boost awareness of gang activities. It developed a web-based Gang Affiliation Database and Gang Education Page, accessible only to probation officers, that includes photos of offenders, their gang-related tattoos, moniker, gang affiliation, residence and primary vehicle, PACTS identification number, date of birth, special court-ordered gang conditions and other information. The Education Page was added to keep the officers aware of local and national gang activities.

In the Northern District of Texas, Probation Officer Reynaldo Gutierrez maintains a database with gang information, and he’s a member of most of the local gang task forces, exchanging information with, at his estimation, at least 200 officers in 50 different agencies. He also runs a full day of training for probation officers on basic gang identification and gang tattoo identification. “Identifying tattoos helps us with an offender’s record,” said Gutierrez. “I photograph all their tattoos and blow up the photos. They can hide names, associations, drug use, and information on what they did in prison in a tattoo’s design.”

To reach young offenders, Chief Probation Officer John M. Bocon’s staff in the District of Massachusetts present programs at local high schools and every three months at juvenile detention facilities. The program uses the CD-ROM based program, Fed Facts: The Real Deal. It’s a drug education program that the U.S. Probation Office in the Middle District of Florida and the Florida Regional Community Policing Institute developed to teach students the legal consequences of drug crime. Bocon and his officers also have modeled a federal re-entry program for impact offenders on a nationally-known initiative by the Boston police. Bocon defines impact offenders as those offenders with convictions for serious gun, drug or violent offenses, many of whom have been affiliated with gangs. Offenders are told what will happen if they re-offend, but also are given the support of community mentors. Some of the mentors are former offenders who have done well after incarceration and who can counsel them, and point them to jobs and housing.

Bocon’s office has increased its contact with gang units within the Boston police department, sending officers twice a month to Boston gang unit meetings where they share information on gang activity. While gangs in Massachusetts historically have been defined as loosely formed associations identified with housing developments or streets, over the last year offenders have been identified with links to national gangs, such as the Crips, Bloods, and MS-13. Says Bocon, “It’s only a matter of time before national gang members are under federal supervision here, says Bocon.”

According to the Administrative Office’s Matt Rowland, Deputy Assistant Director in the Office of Probation and Pretrial Services, the probation and pretrial services system is tackling the growing problem of gangs with both correctional and controlling techniques. “The end result,” says Rowland, “is that the probation officer is there to assist offenders in living a law-abiding lifestyle. In those instances where the offender does not remain crime free or otherwise refuses to comply with the court’s conditions of supervision, the probation officer is there to quickly pursue proper remedies with the court.”