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October 2007

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


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 witnessed.”

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 reports.”

“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 public schools.

“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.”