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November 2007

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


Supervision Looks to Long-Term Change

The majority of federal offenders comply with the terms of supervision imposed by the court following their conviction. Over a quarter of offenders, however, will have supervision revoked and return to the more highly structured supervision of prison. How do offenders avoid revocation and successfully complete supervision and what part do federal probation officers play in that success?

As of September 30, 2006, there were over 114,000 persons under post-conviction supervision in the federal court system.“The desired outcomes of supervision are the execution of the sentence and the protection of the community by reducing the risk and recurrence of crime, and maximizing offender success during the period of supervision and beyond,” said John Hughes, assistant director of the Office of Probation and Pretrial Services at the Administrative Office. “The goal in all cases is the successful completion of the term of supervision, during which the offender commits no new crimes; is held accountable for victim, family, community and other court-imposed responsibilities; and prepares for continued success through improvements in his or her conduct and condition.”

The majority of offenders under supervision have been convicted of drug-related offenses, with the second largest group of offenders under supervision for property offenses—including burglary, larceny, embezzlement, fraud, forgery and counterfeiting—followed by firearms offenses, and violent crimes such as homicide, robbery and assault. An increasing number of the offenders entering federal supervision have prior state and local criminal records and have been exposed to a lengthy prison term based on their federal convictions.

“A probation officer’s goal is to facilitate long-term positive changes in defendants and offenders through proactive interventions,” said Chief Probation Officer David Keeler in the Eastern District of Michigan. Keeler also chairs the Judiciary’s Chiefs Advisory Group. “We certainly know that with the criminal backgrounds of some offenders, strict monitoring is the best way to protect the community. However, with most offenders, we can protect the community through the use of controlling and correctional strategies designed to manage the risk and still facilitate the positive changes for long term success.”

Throughout their terms of supervision, offenders are closely monitored and may be visited at home, work, or in the community at any time by their probation officer. They may be required to undergo drug testing, or mental health or substance abuse treatment. Offenders must conform to thirteen standard conditions of supervision that require them to work regularly, support their dependents, refrain from excessive use of alcohol, notify their probation officer of any change in residence or employment, not associate with anyone convicted of a felony, and pay any fines or restitution imposed by the court, among other conditions of release. If a probation officer feels more supervision is needed, they have alternatives.

“For example, at the time of sentencing the court may impose a condition for drug treatment,” said Keeler. “But if an offender under supervision is using drugs, and substance abuse treatment is not a condition of their supervision, we can petition the court to modify the offender’s conditions of supervision for drug treatment as a way to assist the offender.”

“We do know who is a higher risk for committing crimes and we can focus resources on them,” explains Melissa Cahill, a probation officer in the Eastern District of Missouri. “We know what kinds of interventions are successful.” Cahill, who has a PhD. in clinical psychology, chairs the Research Committee of the American Probation and Parole Association.

Most offenders successfully complete their terms of supervision. Of the 48,881 offenders whose post-conviction supervision cases were closed in the 12-month period ending June 30, 2007, 72 percent finished their terms of supervision and completed their integration back into society. But 28 percent, or 13,737 offenders, had their terms of supervised release, probation, or parole revoked.

For offenders who violate their terms of supervision, the court may extend the term of supervision and/or modify the conditions of supervision. Interim sanctions may be employed. “If a certain type of treatment isn’t working, we’ll try some other kind of treatment,” said Keeler. “A technical violation of the terms of supervision may not necessarily send an offender back to prison. But a felony conviction for new criminal conduct usually means automatic revocation of supervision.”

Of the revoked cases of postconviction supervision in the 12-month period ending June 30, 2007, 57 percent were for technical reasons, which generally meant the offender had violated one of the standard conditions of supervision. Over 4 percent were revocations because of an offender’s conviction while under supervision for a minor offense, such as drunk driving, disorderly conduct, petty theft or a traffic violation. And 38 percent of the revocations were due to an offender’s involvement in, or conviction for a new major offense, including absconding from custody, arrest, or another charge or conviction with a sentence of more than 90 days of imprisonment or more than a year of probation.

“Most officers do everything they possibly can—without endangering the community—to keep the offender in the community,” said Cahill. “Effective intervention is preferred.”

“Revocation is the last resort,” agrees Chief Probation Officer David Keeler. “With probation, we try to get offenders to live a law abiding life. We believe a person has the ability to change. And we can help them do that.”