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Federal Probation Sharpens Tools for Detecting Violent Offenders

Probation officers conduct a home visit.

Home visits are part of the job for federal probation officers. Officers are increasingly using empirical data to help assess who in their caseload needs the most time and attention to prevent recidivism.  

Expanding an approach that has helped lower recidivism by federal offenders under supervision, probation officials are seeking to better protect the public by using actuarial data to help them identify those offenders most likely to become violent.

For about seven years, the Post-Conviction Risk Assessment (PCRA) tool, which assesses an offender’s risk of being re-arrested for a new crime or of failing the terms of probation, has helped U.S. probation officers devote more time, attention, community services and other resources to those at high risk of recidivism.  The PCRA is used in tandem with a probation officer’s professional judgment.

Now, a new tool is being added to the PCRA to help officers identify offenders most at risk for committing a violent crime.  The violence assessment incorporates a range of factors, including a past history of violent crime, gang affiliation, a record of domestic violence, or substance abuse issues. It also takes into account factors such as inability to deal with anger and hostility, mood issues, and access to potential victims.  The information is fed into an algorithm, which produces a risk score.

“We want to promote behavioral change and also contain the risk,” said Matthew Rowland, chief of the Probation and Pretrial Services Office of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, which serves federal probation offices across the country. The federal probation system employs about 5,600 officers.   

Recidivism in the federal system is declining, a positive development that has coincided with the implementation of advanced actuarial assessment tools and the ability of officers to better target intervention at higher risk cases. From 2005 to 2011, the rate of re-arrest or revocation fell from 33 percent to 27 percent, according to researchers writing in Federal Probation Journal.

The new tool will enable officers to intervene by focusing time and resources on people at higher risk of using violence.  For example, a probation officer might step up surveillance efforts, order a home search, do more frequent interviews in the person’s social network, provide for more aggressive cognitive  therapy to address underlying criminal thought patterns, or a combination of these approaches.

The violence assessment tool is being rolled out incrementally to the 94 federal court districts, beginning with seven districts this week. The Probation and Pretrial Services Office hosted intensive training over the summer for representatives from each district, who will in turn train officers in their home districts.

Such data-based tools don’t replace the need for professional judgment based on an officer’s experience, education and interpersonal skills.  But the two used in tandem form a powerful toolkit for today’s federal probation officers.

Researchers have long had their eye on developing a risk of violence assessment component for the PCRA. But because violent recidivism is relatively rare, it took years to accumulate enough data to be able to develop a scientifically sound assessment of risk.

The most recent issue of the journal describes the research behind violence risk assessment. “The safety of the community is paramount … A person’s risk to commit a more harmful act should be measured along with the person’s risk to commit any criminal act. More resources and higher supervision levels are necessary to respond to someone who has demonstrated or has been assessed as likely to cause more serious harm should they reoffend.”

The AO’s research also has shown that the PCRA, in use in its present form since 2010, has been successfully used without negative fallout for offenders who receive fewer resources because they are deemed less likely to return to crime or commit a violent act. 

“Importantly, the policy of supervising low-risk offenders less intensively has not compromised community safety,” the researchers noted. “Post-policy low-risk offenders were no more likely to recidivate compared to their pre-policy counterparts. This finding indicates that federal officers can spend less time and resources on low-risk offenders without an accompanying rise in their recidivism rates.”

Related Topics: Probation and Pretrial Services