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Probation and Pretrial Services – Annual Report 2020

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.

Probation officer in the Western District of Washington reviews the court’s judgment on a case  while working remotely from his home

A probation officer in the Western District of Washington reviews the court’s judgment on a case while working remotely from his home.  

Pandemic Response

When the pandemic arrived in the United States, U.S. probation and pretrial services officers, who supervise people recently released from prison or awaiting trial, had to find new ways to do their jobs almost overnight. As the duration of the crisis grew from weeks to months, probation and pretrial services offices had to innovate quickly to replace their face-to-face approaches for supervising people with digital alternatives.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) assisted probation and pretrial services offices at courts around the country with a large-scale effort to adapt to remote operations. Conference calls were arranged with offices where the pandemic hit first, helping others anticipate and prepare for the challenges as the pandemic rolled from state to state.

For example, officers began conducting virtual home visits by using common video-calling applications, allowing them to check in with people under supervision and to take a tour of residences with a smartphone camera. In the case of individuals who didn’t own video-capable devices, officers contacted family members and neighbors in order to verify the person’s whereabouts.

With many in-person treatment and counseling services suspended during the pandemic, probation and pretrial offices amended contracts for treatment services to include telemedicine, so that individuals undergoing treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues could continue their programs while abiding by local stay-at-home orders. To reduce face-to-face interactions, officers used oral swabs and sweat patches to conduct drug testing over a video call or in person from a distance. The AO helped procure congressional funding for the efforts. 

Meanwhile, the probation and pretrial services offices were absorbing an influx of supervision cases resulting from compassionate and early release policies during the pandemic. They deployed an array of location monitoring technologies, including ankle bracelets, voice-recognition systems, and smartphone-based Global Positioning System (GPS) location monitoring applications, to keep pace with the large workload.

The national Location Monitoring Program increased significantly, from 7,506 cases in September 2019 to 8,237 cases in July 2020. Location monitoring requires close supervision by officers with special training, who can provide 24-hour coverage. The AO launched a Call Center Assist Program, which allowed a third party to investigate potential violations prior to any officer intervention. A pilot of the program resulted in 50 percent fewer officer notifications. The AO also upgraded location monitoring equipment with longer battery life, liquid crystal display (LCD) screens, and enhanced GPS functioning.

Automated Case Tracking System

In April 2020, the AO awarded a contract for the next generation of software for probation and pretrial offices nationwide. The new Probation and Pretrial Services Automated Case Tracking System (PACTS) will replace the current aging system with a highly configurable and cloud-based system that is more efficient and easier to use, with “sandbox” features for testing and experimentation. The PACTS system is vital to the work of probation and pretrial services officers. It is their main case management system, used to manage their supervision and investigative efforts. The new version will provide a single database for all case records, from pretrial interview and bail reports to presentence investigation documents. It also will facilitate greater data sharing among probation and pretrial services offices nationwide. The contract was awarded following a thorough review of vendor proposals. Development, configuration, and rollout of the system is expected to take at least two years.

Protecting Officer Wellness and Safety

In response to increased stress among probation and pretrial services officers, including new stresses from the COVID-19 pandemic, the AO sought to address wellness among officers and staff. Officers do much of their work in the community, often in unsafe environments. They routinely encounter stressful situations and often need to respond to case-related emergencies late at night or on weekends and holidays. To assist, the AO launched a website with wellness resources for probation and pretrial services staff and managers, guidance on developing in-district wellness programs, and a directory of subject-matter experts. The site also serves as a clearinghouse for wellness programs and critical incident stress management teams nationally. The AO launched a quarterly newsletter called Wellness Wisdom, highlighting wellness ideas, activities, and strategies, with the first issue published in June 2020. A planned national wellness conference was deferred until 2021 due to the pandemic.

Philadelphia Court Eases Reentry into Community and a Crime-Free Life

A video produced by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts demonstrates how innovative approaches by the probation team in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania are helping to reduce recidivism.