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Pretrial Services Act Turns 25
“You are the gatekeepers at the front door of the halls of justice,” Chief
Judge James G. Carr (N.D. Ohio) told the hundreds of federal pretrial services
officers gathered from across the nation.
“How you do your job is going to affect . . . the willingness of the
defendant, found guilty or not, incarcerated or not, to accept that the system
is fair, compassionate and considerate of his rights and the welfare of all of
us,” Carr said.
The officers met in Cleveland for two days in September to commemorate the
25-year anniversary of the Pretrial Services Act, the law Carr called “one of
the most significant advances in simple justice that our system has ever
The first federal pretrial services officers were part of a pilot program
authorized by the Speedy Trial Act of 1974, but the Pretrial Services Act that
authorized these vital functions for judicial districts nationwide was not
passed by Congress until the fall of 1982.
In the intervening quarter century, the core responsibilities of pretrial
services officers have remained constant: Identifying and addressing the risks
of a criminal defendant’s flight and the risks of danger to the community if
that defendant is released pending trial.
“What you do for the Judiciary is at the very heart and soul of the judicial
system,” Administrative Office Director James C. Duff told the pretrial services
officers, “because you enhance the human touch, the human element in what the
Judiciary does. Our judges, especially the magistrate judges, have really come
to expect having verified information about defendants who appear before them,
and having someone to supervise those released pending trial.”
He added: “Pretrial services gives judges alternatives to simply locking
people up or letting them out without supervision.”
In the year following the law’s enactment, 15,000 cases were handled by
pretrial services officers. Today, pretrial services officers handle nearly
100,000 cases each year.
“We’re firmly established as a function in the federal judicial system,” said
Carol Miyashiro, chief pretrial services officer for the District of Hawaii.
“Pretrial services exist in all 94 judicial districts. Depending upon the
district, pretrial services is administered by either a separate pretrial
services office or as part of the probation office.”
Dan Ryan, retired Operations Branch chief of the AO’s old Federal Corrections
and Supervision Division, remembers a time when the future of pretrial services
was in doubt.
As he traveled from district to district to explain the then-new phenomenon,
Ryan said he encountered “a lot of healthy skepticism. There were some districts
where I just couldn’t wait to get out of there. I mean, it was really a hostile
audience in places,” he said.
Astounding efficiency helped win over the skeptics. In the 25 years since
passage of the Pretrial Services Act, less than 2 percent of the 1.5 million
cases handled have resulted in a released defendant’s failure to appear for
trial or a released defendant being re-arrested.
“Thank you for your work,” Carr told the pretrial services officers. “We
admire you greatly.”
He said judges depend on pretrial services officers “to give us your best
judgment, not to try to anticipate my predilections as a judge, what you think I
might want to do with this particular defendant, and certainly not to simply go
along with and accept whatever the prosecutor or the defense attorney wants . .
. Make the best inquiry you can, and give us the best advice you can.”
John Hughes, the AO’s assistant director for the Office of Probation and
Pretrial Services, sees pretrial services officers as protectors of a
fundamental tenet, the presumption of innocence.
“You have to be a change agent,” Hughes told the pretrial services officers
in Cleveland. “Your job is not simply to process defendants and write
“We make it messy, and we should make it messy. It’s a big deal to lock
someone up,” he said. “Pretrial services officers should help the court so that
pretrial detention is truly the last resort.”
The passage of time has seen enormous changes in the type of cases, and the
kind of defendants, encountered by pretrial services officers. No longer are
federal criminal defendants predominantly accused of “white collar” offenses.
Most face charges linked to drugs and firearms.
“Our clientele has changed a lot since I started in the system 20 years ago,”
said Greg Johnson, chief probation officer for the Northern District of Ohio.
His district has begun an outreach program aimed at people Johnson says “are
predisposed to drug and firearm crimes.”
The Project Penalty Awareness program in Cleveland’s public schools explains
the severe penalties such crimes can draw in the federal justice system. The
program soon may be part of the social studies curriculum throughout Ohio’s
“I think pretrial officers need to be much more proactive and need to be
looking at prevention,” Johnson said.
Technological advances—innovations such as electronic monitoring, global
position satellites, and handheld drug-testing devices—have proved
cost-effective by adding to the available alternatives to pretrial detention.
“The changing face of technology does affect our core responsibilities, but
technology does not replace those responsibilities,” Johnson said.
In helping commemorate the Pretrial Services Act’s silver anniversary, AO
Director Duff told the assembled officers, “Your services are more crucial today
than they ever were, 25 years ago.”