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Probation and Pretrial Services - Annual Report 2016

Probation and Pretrial Services offices strive to achieve positive changes in individuals under supervision while also protecting the community. Using evidence-based practices and innovative technology, these offices focus on the efficient use of limited resources to maintain public safety and steadily reduce recidivism.

Declining Recidivism Rates

A recent Administrative Office (AO) study found that rates of re-arrests for new criminal activity as well as rates of revocation of supervision are declining. The AO tracked over 454,000 offenders across the nation, one of the largest groups ever studied for this purpose. Adjusted for the inherent risk of offenders who serve terms of community supervision, the re-arrest rate for offenders who began their supervision terms in fiscal year (FY) 2005 was 18 percent, compared with 16 percent for those who began their terms in FY 2011, the most recent year for which the AO has three-year data. (Trends are reported in three-year periods, starting from the day an individual’s supervision begins, in accordance with corrections research standards.)

The adjusted rates of revocation of supervision (for failure to comply with court-ordered conditions of supervision) showed a sharper decline, from 20 percent to 16 percent, respectively. These findings suggest that probation officers are improving their abilities to manage risk and provide rehabilitative interventions. Measureable decreases in federal recidivism coincide with concerted efforts to bring state-of-the-art, evidence-based supervision practices into the federal system. The AO study was published in the Federal Probation Journal.

Recidivism Risk and Probation

Probation officers conduct a home visit.

Home visits are part of the job for federal probation officers. Officers are increasingly using empirical data to help assess who in their caseload needs the most time and attention to prevent recidivism.  

An AO study published in the September 2016 Federal Probation Journal examined the extent to which the recidivism risk of persons under post-conviction supervision changes over time.  Mutable or dynamic risk factors can reduce recidivism if the probation officer effectively provides supervision services targeting such factors as poor social networks, substance abuse, education, and employment. Officers reassess people under their supervision at regular intervals to determine whether their strategies are lowering the risk of recidivism.

The study looked at more than 64,000 people to see how changes in offenders’ risk, as measured by a tool called the Post-Conviction Risk Assessment (PCRA), correlate with actual re-arrest rates. The study clearly shows that low-moderate-, moderate-, and high-risk offenders on federal supervision with decreased risk classifications were less likely to recidivate compared with their counterparts whose risk level either remained unchanged or increased. Conversely, higher recidivism rates were associated with increases in offender risk. These findings are consistent with the supervision risk principle that suggests officers reduce the intensity of supervision services to offenders with the lowest risk of recidivating, preserving resources for those at higher risk.

Better Risk Assessment Tools

While serious violent offenses are committed by a small fraction of offenders on post-conviction supervision, they have a devastating impact on the victims, cause fear in the community, and are costly to the criminal justice system. An upgrade was made to the PCRA that will help probation officers identify people under post-conviction supervision who are at elevated risk for committing violent crimes. Officers began training using the revised tool in 2016.

Coupled with an officer’s professional judgment, the new risk assessments provide more effective monitoring of violent offenders, identifying who may need increased services to mitigate the risk of violence. In a time of reduced federal resources, such assessments allow officers to prioritize services to people at highest risk of violent recidivism.

Low-Risk Offenders

An AO study published in the June 2016 edition of the Federal Probation Journal empirically confirmed the effectiveness of a Judicial Conference policy supporting significantly reduced levels of supervision for individuals classified as low risk. The Conference originally adopted the policy based on evidence that supervision is most effective when it is commensurate with risk, allowing resources to be focused on supervising people at greatest risk of recidivism.

The study assessed whether minimizing resources in low-risk offender supervision succeeded in its mission without compromising community safety or the collection of court-imposed financial obligations of fines and restitution. The study found that low-risk offenders recidivated at nearly identical rates before and after the low-risk policy’s implementation in 2012, despite reduced officer contacts.  This finding confirms that officers can spend less time and resources on low-risk offenders without risking an increase in recidivism rates.

Changes to Conditions of Supervision

The AO coordinated a comprehensive study to determine: (1) whether all standard conditions of supervision are required in all cases; (2) whether the wording of certain standard and common special supervision conditions could be refined; and (3) whether further guidance could be provided on the wording and legal purposes of the standard conditions.

The AO developed proposed revisions to the standard conditions of supervision and proposed guidance for judges, probation officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and other criminal justice practitioners. The revisions included making condition language clearer, more precise, and plainly worded, and eliminating requirements that are not applicable in every case. The guidance discusses the purpose, authority, wording, and implementation of standard conditions and the most common special conditions.  The AO also drafted conforming policy revisions related to the presentence disclosure of special conditions, the timing for recommending special conditions, and the privilege against self-incrimination during post-conviction supervision.

In February 2016, Judge Ricardo S. Martinez, chair of the Criminal Law Committee and the chief judge of Washington’s Western District Court, testified at a U.S. Sentencing Commission hearing that the committee supported proposed conforming amendments to provisions related to conditions of probation and supervised release. In April, the commission voted unanimously to approve the proposal, which took effect on November 1, 2016.