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April 2012

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


Committee Oversight Supports Work of Probation and Pretrial Services Officers

Judge Robert Holmes Bell (W.D. Mich.)

Judge Robert Holmes Bell (W.D. Mich.)

Judge Robert Holmes Bell was appointed to the federal bench in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan in 1987. In 2010, he was named chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on Criminal Law.

What is the jurisdiction of the Judicial Conference Committee on Criminal Law?

The Criminal Law Committee oversees the federal probation and pretrial services system, and reviews legislation and other issues relating to the administration of the criminal law. We work closely with the U.S. Sentencing Commission and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to monitor trends in sentencing and corrections, and collaborate to develop policies for consideration by the Judicial Conference that improve the administration of the federal criminal justice system.

Among our most important duties is to develop and recommend to the Conference the annual budget for the operation of the probation and pretrial services system. Here, we have a dual role of scrutinizing the budget to find opportunities to save and preserving funding for the mission-critical functions performed by our probation and pretrial service staff.

At your committee’s last meeting in December, what were some of the major topics discussed?

Our December meeting resulted in several recommendations that were endorsed by the Judicial Conference, including several cost-containment-related legislative proposals and policy changes related to pretrial diversion, officer safety, and the supervision of low-risk offenders.

The Committee also had an extensive conversation with Judge Patti Saris and other members of the U.S. Sentencing Commission on the disclosure of judge-specific sentencing information. This discussion was prompted by the Commission’s receipt of a request from the House Judiciary Committee for the release of judge-specific sentencing data possessed by the Commission. The Committee expressed concerns that statistical reporting is often incomplete and may allow for conclusions to be taken out of context as applied to individual judges, and sample sizes applicable to individual judges will often not be large enough to validate statistical comparisons. Also, disclosure of information about individual judges can pose a variety of security risks. Furthermore, singling out information about individual judges, particularly in case-related matters for the purpose of evaluating a judge’s sentencing pattern, can run counter to notions of impartiality and judicial independence.

The Judicial Conference endorsed the Criminal Law Committee’s recommendation that a study be conducted to assess the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of federal reentry court programs. Can you update us on the status of that study?

At its September 2009 session, the Judicial Conference endorsed the Criminal Law Committee’s recommendation that a study be conducted to assess the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of federal reentry court programs. The Committee asked the Federal Judicial Center to lead this study. The FJC designed a two-pronged study. The first prong involves a multi-year randomized experimental study in five districts with new or relatively new reentry court programs that will follow a reentry program model developed by the AO to assure that each study district implement supervision practices demonstrated to work by social science research and to assure consistency among study districts. Each study district is now operational, and the FJC is monitoring the progress of the experimental programs and collecting on-site data. This phase will take several years to complete.

The second prong of the study involves an assessment of existing reentry court programs in 36 districts.  This prong will rely on PACTS, the Probation and Pretrial Services Automated Case Tracking System, data to identify reentry court program participants and a matched comparison group. The study will consider the impact that program participation and completion had on revocation and rearrest rates. The retrospective study will not capture data on the costs associated with operating a reentry court program, and thus will not answer the Conference’s questions about the cost-effectiveness of these programs.

Your Committee has endorsed continuing efforts to incorporate evidence-based practices (EBP) in the federal probation and pretrial services system. How is that effort progressing? Has EBP reduced recidivism?

The Committee does not view EBP as a single program or project, but rather as an empirically based, multi-faceted approach to reducing recidivism. Probation and pretrial services staff across the country have made tremendous strides in implementing EBP. More than 1,700 officers have been trained in the Pretrial Risk Assessment Instrument (PTRA) and more than 3,500 have been trained in the Post Conviction Risk Assessment Instrument (PCRA). These tools allow officers to identify and direct resources to the defendants and offenders who pose the greatest risk. The AO has also begun a new program titled Staff Training Aimed at Reducing Re-Arrest (STARR), which teaches officers how to use core correctional skills in their interactions with offenders. These skills include effective use of authority, anti-criminal modeling and reinforcement, problem-solving, use of community resources, and cognitive behavioral techniques. When used properly, these skills have been proven to contribute to better supervision outcomes.

The Committee is aware that the use of evidence-based practices in state and local systems has reduced recidivism, and we have been working with the AO to collect the data needed to measure our own outcomes. The first outcome report was issued in December 2010 and showed that less than one quarter of the offenders in the study cohort incurred their first re-arrest for a serious offense within three years of beginning their supervision term. At our June 2012 meeting, the Committee expects to receive an updated report with two more years of recidivism data.

With funding projected at a hard freeze for 2013, is your Committee looking at cost containment for probation and pretrial services offices?

The Criminal Law Committee has taken its responsibility to control costs seriously. Since 2004, the Committee has pursued strategies intended to focus resources on higher risk defendants and offenders and on the more complex investigations and reports. Earlier this year, I sent a memo to all judges asking that they consider ordering reduced scope investigations and supervision services in appropriate cases. At its March 2012 session, the Judicial Conference endorsed our Committee’s recommendations to seek legislation that would drop some duplicative or obsolete statutory requirements. For example, one proposal would allow a court to waive electronic monitoring of certain defendants if more restrictive measures, such as residence in a halfway house or treatment facility, are part of the court’s pretrial release order.

The Committee will continue to consider areas where additional savings might be found. One such area may be in the space requirements of the court units. The Committee will continue to rely on the input of the Chiefs Advisory Group to help identify and implement any additional cost-savings measures.

Shared administrative services is one proposed cost-containment initiative. Is it practical for pretrial services and probation offices?

The Criminal Law Committee strongly supports the use of shared services. While probation and pretrial services offices already do a considerable amount of sharing, we recognize that more can be done and we believe that chief probation and pretrial services officers should, under the supervision of their chief judges, have broad authority to share both operational and administrative services within their districts, regionally, and nationally.

The Committee recognizes that most of the shared services will be in the administrative areas, such as information technology, procurement, and human resources; however, the sharing of operational services (at least among probation and pretrial services offices) should also be judicially encouraged. In its 2004 report Strategic Assessment of the Federal Probation and Pretrial Services System, IBM recommended that we “staff to promote mission-critical outcomes” and “review alternative means of accessing specialist knowledge.” With the ability to reprogram funds to units in other districts, it is now feasible to share officer positions, such as sex-offender specialists, cyber-crime specialists, and search team members. To make such sharing arrangements easier to pursue, the Committee recommended at its December meeting that the Judicial Conference seek legislation that would amend 18 U.S.C. § 3602 to allow an officer appointed in one district to perform services for another (of course, with the consent of the appointing court).

What goals or objectives have you set for yourself as Committee chair?

I am very fortunate to be joined on the Committee by talented judges who are truly engaged in the topics within the Committee’s jurisdiction. My goal is to facilitate the sharing of ideas between our members and other stakeholders, including the chief probation and pretrial services officers, the Sentencing Commission, and the Bureau of Prisons.

Like the rest of the Committee, I believe that the protection of the public and the safety of our staff are of paramount concern. Accordingly, the Committee and I will endeavor to give the probation and pretrial services staff the support they need to continue their work, whether it is providing information in furtherance of pretrial release or sentencing decisions, or in executing and enforcing the terms and conditions of supervision.