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In-Depth: The Federal Probation and Pretrial Services System Reshaping Lives, Protecting Society
By definition, a red flag gets attention. It’s a warning signal, indicating something that demands immediate action. So when a red flag pops up on a computer screen next to the name of an offender released by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), probation officers investigate.
The electronic flag system, otherwise known at the BOP Offender Release Report, was developed by the Administrative Office (AO) to help probation staff filter through data on the inmates in BOP custody or recently released to the community. On any given day, the BOP has more than 200,000 people in custody and reports the release of 60,000 offenders to the community every year. The majority of cases are routine and straightforward. However, there are those that involve inmates whose release date keeps changing, or who will be moved to local custody to face additional charges, or are subject to deportation after their prison term. Keeping track of those inmates and making sure that their supervision term is monitored can be a challenge.
The BOP Offender Release Report mines data provided by the BOP and merges it with information from the Pretrial Services Automated Cases Tracking System (PACTS), the case management system now used by all federal probation offices. The report lists inmates and then assigns them a colored flag based on their status. Green and blue flags signify that the inmate is expected to be released at some point within the next 12 months. A yellow flag signifies that the inmate’s projected release may have been delayed, and inquiries should be made by probation staff. A red flag appears when the BOP indicates that the inmate has been released to the community, but no corresponding supervision record can be found in PACTS.
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New officers receive classroom instruction at the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services Training Academy in Charleston, South Carolina.
“With tens of thousands of offenders released to the community every year, and some of those offenders not particularly interested in reporting to their probation officer, the BOP Offender Release Report helps us identify cases that might otherwise fall through the cracks,” said Matt Rowland, deputy assistant director in the AO’s Office of Probation and Pretrial Services. “We wanted to create a ‘fail-safe’ to serve as a backup to the traditional, manual methods of identifying potential fugitives, and the electronic flag system serves as that fail-safe. The report is a great example of the power of technology, interagency cooperation, and teamwork between the AO and the courts.”
The BOP Offender Release Report also serves as a planning tool for districts. Previously, a newly released offender might simply appear, with little or no prior notice, at a probation office. The probation office might have little information about the person.
“Sharing information is critical, because an unsupervised offender may pose a risk,” said U.S. Probation Officer Rod McKone in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona. He helped develop and test the automated system that generates the report, and he continues to work on additional functions and interfaces for the system.
“The BOP Offender Release Report gives probation offices up to a year’s advance notice prior to an offender being released from a halfway house or prison,” McKone said. “The report will tell not only whether an offender is assigned a probation officer, but also the officer’s name, the sentencing district with a link to the offender’s case information, and the facility where the prisoner is currently incarcerated or where the halfway house is located—and map it too.”
Probation officers can see, by zip code, the number of offenders due to be released in that area, or they can check on the future release of a single prisoner. Officers can see who will go to a halfway house; verify contact information for the offender’s family; and verify the offender’s status, for example, if he or she is a sex offender. Officers can search by an offender’s register number, name, district, or a variety of other identifiers. They can see when and where DNA samples were taken. All information is electronic and is regularly refreshed, with weekly updates from SENTRY—BOP’s automated information database on currently and formerly incarcerated inmates—and nightly updates from PACTS.
“The report allows us to track and plan ahead for offenders to be released from prison, to supervise more effectively, and to better ensure public safety,” said McKone. His district opens over 300 supervision cases per month. When the report first became available, the District of Arizona had 2,000 red flags on which to follow-up—a number it has whittled down to 33, of which only two are older than two months.
To clear a red flag from the report, a probation office must act, either to assign a probation officer to the case, or to note the reason why a supervision case cannot be opened in PACTS. In some cases, the court may not have ordered a term of supervision to follow release, or the conviction/sentence was vacated. In other cases, the inmate may have been released to authorities in a foreign country, the offender may have escaped from a BOP facility, or the offender cannot be matched because PACTS and BOP records have different U.S. Marshal/register numbers. Regardless of the reason, the red flag remains until corrective action is taken.
“The report is that extra protective step we take,” said Rowland, “to ensure that all cases are accounted for and supervision terms are enforced.”