Main content

Probation and Pretrial Services – Annual Report 2017

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.

Better Tools for Detecting Violent Offenders

Expanding an approach that has helped lower recidivism by federal offenders under supervision, federal probation officials in 2017 rolled out a new data tool to help officers in the field identify offenders most likely to become violent. A violence-risk assessment tool was added to the Post-Conviction Risk Assessment tool (PCRA), which assesses an offender’s risk of being rearrested for a new crime or of failing the terms of probation. The PCRA tool is used in tandem with a probation officer’s professional judgment, and it has helped U.S. probation officers devote more time, attention, community services, and other resources to those at high risk of recidivism.

The violence-risk assessment incorporates a range of factors, including a past history of violent crime, gang affiliation, a record of domestic violence, and substance abuse issues. It also takes into account factors such as inability to deal with anger and hostility, mood issues, and access to potential victims. The information is fed into an algorithm, which produces a risk score. Based on that score, officers focus time and resources on people at higher risk of becoming violent. For example, a probation officer might step up surveillance efforts, order a home search, conduct more frequent interviews in the person’s social network, provide for more aggressive cognitive therapy to address underlying criminal thought patterns, or a combination of these approaches.

The Probation and Pretrial Services Office hosted intensive training for representatives from each of 94 court districts. Recidivism in the federal system is declining, a development that corresponds with the implementation of advanced actuarial assessment tools and the ability of officers to better target intervention at higher risk cases.

Mitigating Offenders’ Risk of Recidivism

In addition to classifying offenders’ risk levels, the PCRA identifies the specific factors that tend to drive offenders’ criminal behavior, sometimes referred to as dynamic risk factors.  Research has shown that by addressing these factors, an offender’s risk of recidivism can be reduced. During 2017, staff from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) worked with the University of Cincinnati Corrections Institute to develop curricula in four of the leading dynamic risk factors identified in federal offenders: antisocial thinking, antisocial networks, education and employment deficits, and alcohol and drug abuse. A fifth curriculum was developed on mitigating the risk of violence. The curricula will better inform officers and treatment providers about how to address dynamic risk factors.

Better Tools for Monitoring Offenders

The docket of the federal Judiciary is increasingly filled with defendants who use a computer to facilitate the commission of their crimes. To address this trend, the AO awarded a national contract to provide internet and computer monitoring services to probation and pretrial services offices that supervise defendants and offenders subject to court-ordered conditions restricting the use of technology. The new service promotes consistent enforcement of the computer restrictions, helps keep officers aware of the conduct of the people under their supervision, and streamlines the amount of information that officers must review. The use of this monitoring technology minimizes the risk to public safety while granting defendants and offenders access to the internet and computers for legitimate purposes. 

Developing Officers’ Skills

To ensure that officers have a common understanding of evidence-based practices, the AO piloted an e-learning system that was created by George Mason University to assist criminal justice professionals in building skills in using evidence-based practices. The e-learning system’s interactive simulation tools include practice vignettes, video demonstrations, and individualized feedback that augment traditional classroom-based training. Because it’s web-based, users can review materials as needed to refresh concepts.

Location Monitoring Training

The AO’s Probation and Pretrial Services Office also conducted field training in the effective use of location monitoring – a supervision condition that requires people to be confined to their homes, tracked in the community, or both. Individuals are linked to a monitoring system through an ankle transmitter or a tracking device worn or carried 24 hours a day. As part of a multi-year training effort, location monitoring specialists were detailed to probation and pretrial offices around the country in 2017 to teach officers the best practices in the technical aspects of location monitoring and in supervising people in the program.

Location monitoring is one tool among many used by officers to supervise people who are either awaiting trial or who have served jail time and are under a judge's order to undergo a period of post-prison supervision. Its use does not guarantee individuals will comply with the terms of their release and neither can location monitoring devices prevent criminal behavior. Rather, the tool assists officers in monitoring whether individuals are in compliance and helps them manage risks.