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Probation and Pretrial Services - Annual Report 2015

Probation and pretrial services offices lead Judiciary efforts to measure the quality of services to the courts and the community, including the use of evidence-based practices, in the supervision of offenders and defendants.

Recidivism Declines

Approximately 80 percent of federal offenders remain free of felony arrest during their first three years back in the community after release from prison, and fewer than 15 percent of those are re-arrested for serious offenses even three years after completing their term of supervision, according to what is believed to be the largest study ever of federal offenders. The study, published in the December 2015 issue of Federal Probation Journal, was based on data from 454,223 offenders from every district who entered probation or terms of supervised release between October 1, 2004 and September 30, 2014. After adjusting for the increasing risk of the offender population, three-year re-arrest rates improved from 18 percent to 16 percent for offenders who finished their three-year follow-up in fiscal year 2014 compared with those whose follow-up term ended in 2011.

Probation Offices Prepare for Record Release of Offenders

By the end of October 2015, U.S. Probation Offices nationwide were preparing to receive the single largest increase in caseload in the federal probation system's 90-year history. Close to 6,000 inmates were released from prison the last weekend of October 2015, most of whom would serve community supervision terms monitored by federal probation officers. By comparison, close to 500 offenders are typically released nationwide in a single weekend. Over the next few years, as many as 45,000 offenders are expected to be released early and begin supervised release.

The early releases stem from a revision, approved by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, to the penalties for drug offenses .

To prepare for the influx of cases and the 225,000 persons already scheduled to be supervised by the federal probation and pretrial services system in 2015, the Judiciary hired 150 additional probation and pretrial services officers.

Communities Made Safer with Results-Based System

At the direction of the Judicial Conference Committee on Criminal Law, the AO continues to refine the comprehensive outcome measurement (or results-based) system for federal probation and pretrial services. The results-based framework allows system stakeholders to measure not only what the federal probation and pretrial services system does, but how well it does it. While the Judiciary plans to enhance the results-based framework to measure systematically each of the four core functions—pretrial services investigations, pretrial supervision, presentence investigations, and post-conviction supervision—the initial stages of the results-based framework focus heavily on post-conviction supervision, which consumes the largest portion of system resources and is most closely tied to the agency’s overarching mission of community safety.

Officer STARR Skills Honed

As of 2015, more than 1,000 officers in more than 80 of the 113 probation and pretrial services offices nationwide participated in the Staff Training Aimed at Reducing Re-Arrest (STARR) Program. STARR skills include specific strategies for active listening; role clarification; effective use of authority, disapproval, reinforcement, and punishment; problem solving; and teaching, applying, and reviewing the cognitive model.

Five officers were selected this year to serve temporary duty assignments with the AO to assist in the national implementation of STARR’s core correctional practices and other evidenced-based supervision initiatives. In addition, 213 STARR users have been trained to serve as on-site peer coaches to enhance skill development and serve as mentors for in-district users. A STARR Coaches Resource Library was launched in 2015 to provide coaches with supporting materials. 

Research Corroborates, Fine Tunes Supervision Policies

A study of 105,197 low-risk offenders over the first 12 months of their supervised release assessed the effectiveness of the federal supervision system’s policy of less intensive supervision for low-risk offenders, compared to their higher-risk counterparts.

Research on pilot projects and smaller field studies had suggested that focusing time, attention, and resources on low-risk offenders has a negligible impact on their recidivism behavior and may even produce negative consequences. This was the first attempt to analyze the potential impact of implementing the low-risk supervision model on an entire correctional agency.

The results of the system-wide study suggest that the low-risk policy has not compromised community safety. Post-policy low-risk offenders were no more likely to recidivate compared to their pre-policy equivalents. With minimal time and resources expended on low-risk offenders, officers direct more of their efforts on offenders in higher-risk categories.

PACTS Performance Enhanced

The AO continued working this year to improve Probation and Pretrial Services Automated Case Tracking System (PACTS) Gen 3 software and architecture. Recent changes improved performance and availability, facilitated the entering of criminal history information that is used to prepare bail and presentence reports, and enhanced the collection of pretrial services data to measure outcomes more accurately. For the past two years, all probation and pretrial services offices have been operational on the initial version of PACTS Gen3, which combined district databases into a single national database, updated the browser interface, and allowed courts to access critical case data securely for use with locally developed applications.

Software upgrades planned for fiscal year 2016 will enhance the guideline-offense calculator, a tool used in drafting presentence reports, and make it easier for officers to record offender non-compliance and officer and court responses. Future improvements are likely to include better support for officers’ business processes and workflow and improved data quality and outcome measures, accountability, and officer mobility.

Backlog Cleared in Probation and Pretrial Services Officer Training

The Probation and Pretrial Services National Training Academy began fiscal year 2015 with a wait time of 12 months for new officer training. The backlog had developed as a result of the fiscal year 2013 sequestration budget reductions. To train 549 new officers this year and clear the backlog, the Academy temporarily condensed the six-week program to four weeks. Now that the backlog has been eliminated, the Academy will resume its six-week training regimen in fiscal year 2016.

In addition to new officers, the Academy trained 292 experienced officers this year in firearms safety, and on how to conduct searches and seizure of contraband legally and safely. The Academy, located in Charleston, SC, also teaches officers evidence-based supervision strategies shown to reduce recidivism when consistently applied. These include core correctional practices, a set of skills for interacting with offenders or defendants that help the supervised individuals overcome dysfunctional thinking patterns that often lead to criminal activity.

Training Academy Marks Decade Milestone

In 2015, the National Training Academy celebrated its first decade providing standardized training to probation and pretrial services officers. In its first decade, the academy trained about 2,500 officers and is credited with giving a national identity to the Judiciary’s 5,000 probation and pretrial services officers. Initially, a three-week program focused heavily on firearms training and other safety matters, but the academy now gives all new officers a comprehensive six-week training that covers virtually all facets of the job, including working with offenders, interacting with the courts, and use of the latest high-tech tools and national databases.

Detention Reduction Aim of New Project

The new Detention Reduction Outreach Project (DROP) involves collaboration with stakeholders—the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Federal Defenders Office, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Probation and Pretrial Services Office, and others—in an effort to safely reduce pretrial detention in federal districts. This year, AO staff began visiting individual districts to initiate discussions between stakeholders about changes to pretrial investigation and decision-making processes. This included the incorporation of the Pretrial Risk Assessment Instrument (PTRA) score in the analysis leading to the officer’s recommendation for release or detention. PTRA scores help predict a defendant’s risk of failing to appear, being arrested, and violating the conditions while on pretrial release.

The cost to implement alternatives to detention is substantially lower than the cost of pretrial detention. Cost-effectiveness becomes an issue when, as in 2014, more than half of all defendants charged with non-immigration offenses are detained. When alternatives to detention are imposed, the rights of defendants and the community can be protected, while public funds are used responsibly.

Offender Financial Accountability Improved with OPERA

The AO is working with the Department of Justice to make the Offender Payment Enhanced Report Access (OPERA) available to the U.S. attorney’s office and financial litigation unit (FLU) in each district.

Since 2009, probation officers have used the OPERA application to view up-to-date offender debt and payment information collected by clerk’s office staff. Such data lets probation officers monitor the payment of more than $14.7 billion in criminal monetary penalties imposed on offenders under active post-conviction supervision. Giving FLU staff OPERA access will strengthen this collaborative effort to hold offenders accountable and compensate victims. The OPERA application also will allow FLU staff to view the offender payment data without needing to contact court staff for the information, saving both groups valuable time.