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Early Release of Inmates: Next Step – Probation Supervision

Recent news reports have focused on the thousands of federal inmates released from federal prison on an expedited basis due to changes in drug sentencing laws.

For the past 90 years it has been the responsibility of federal probation officers to both supervise offenders released into the community and assure the community remains safe.

Normally, up to 500 inmates might be released over a weekend. The November 1, 2015, release of approximately 6,000 offenders represented the largest increase of persons coming under supervision in the history of the federal probation system. They joined the 135,000 persons already on post-conviction supervision.

While the public may not be familiar with federal probation and pretrial services offices, they are an essential component of the U.S. district courts throughout the country, serving as a court’s liaison with its community. They:

  • Gather and verify information about persons charged with crimes who come before the courts;
  • Prepare reports that the courts rely on to make release and sentencing decisions;
  • Supervise persons released to the community by the courts; and
  • Direct persons under supervision to services to help them stay on the right side of the law, including substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, medical care, training, and employment assistance.

Last year, the United States Sentencing Commission approved a Sentencing Guideline Amendment that reduced the custody range for federal drug offenses, and authorized the lower range to be applied retroactively to approximately 46,000 inmates held by the Bureau of Prisons.  The vast majority of those inmates also owe supervised release terms (under 18 U.S.C. § 3583) to be served upon their release from imprisonment.

The Judiciary requested a one-year delay in the release of inmates under the retroactive amendment in order to give the federal probation system time to prepare for the influx of offenders and to promote positive case outcomes.

In that time, the number of probation and pretrial services staff was increased by 179, including 130 additional officers. Officers in the federal system continue to be recruited from state or local criminal justice systems and social service agencies, and often exceed the bachelor degree requirement with a master’s degree or doctorate in a related field of study.  

The Judiciary continues to expand training programs for officers on research proven (evidenced-based) supervision practices that are proven to reduce recidivism.  All officers must complete at least 40 hours of professional training each year pursuant to Judicial Conference policy. In addition, probation and pretrial services officers are an increasingly mobile workforce, using tools such as PACTS, an automated case tracking system that contains a national data base, which allows officers to access criminal history information about any offender from their mobile device.

Supervision strikes the delicate balance of offering convicted persons the opportunity to amend their ways, while restricting their rights and monitoring their activities to the degree necessary to protect the community.

There can be no perfect way to stop determined offenders from committing new offenses. Presently, 80 percent of persons under federal supervision remain free from arrest on any felony charges for at least three years. This compares to an average of 33 percent for state post-conviction supervision offenders who remain arrest free.

In addition to the Sentencing Commission amendments and the resulting inmate release, the President’s clemency initiative, expansion of the Bureau of Prisons compassionate release program, and sentencing reform legislation pending in Congress could put additional pressures on the probation and pretrial services system.

As of June 30, 2015, 133,428 federal offenders were under post-conviction supervision, compared to 132,597 on June 30, 2014.

Related Topics: District Courts, Probation and Pretrial Services, U.S. Sentencing Commission