Criminal justice stories have dominated the news in many communities. Yet it has gone largely unnoticed that within the next several months, thousands of inmates are expected to be released early from federal prison.
The public needs to be assured that relieving the prison overcrowding crisis does not in turn create a probation supervision crisis. Probation officers safeguard communities and help offenders rebuild their lives. Without them, meaningful criminal justice reform is not just incomplete; it could be deleterious.
Probation officers provide former offenders with medical care, substance abuse and mental health treatment, and training and employment assistance so they can stay on the right side of the law. They also monitor the activities and behavior of the same ex-offenders, meet with them at home and at work and, if they do not comply with the terms of their supervision, notify the court so appropriate action can be taken to ensure that the community is not endangered.
If a physician is required to treat more patients than she sees in a typical week, one would expect a decline in the quality of care. Likewise, if a probation officer needs to supervise a significantly greater number of offenders, his or her ability to do so effectively while also safeguarding the community will be compromised.
This simple math can be applied to virtually any line of work and produce the same undesirable result. The caseload of federal probation officers today already is the highest it has been in decades.
In 2014, according to the Probation and Pretrial Services Office of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, more than 185,000 individuals were under post-conviction supervision by federal probation officers, and nearly an equal number were under investigation by officers, pending pretrial release determinations and sentencing. In contrast, some 163,000 offenders were under supervision in 2005.
Overwhelming the already-stretched system will do more than just diminish its capacity; it also could result in tangible harm, since federal offenders’ criminal propensities will remain largely unchecked in the very same communities they once victimized. The federal probation system typically receives 150 new offenders a day. On November 1, 2015, when new decreased drug penalties for drug trafficking take effect, close to 8,000 inmates will be eligible for release from prison.
In the following months, thousands more inmates will be released. The vast majority will require supervision by a federal probation officer. And this is not a short term concern: The average term of supervision for drug trafficking offenders is nearly four and a half years.
The President's clemency initiative, although off to a slow start, may very well accelerate in the coming months, and congressional proposals to release lower-risk inmates from custody, if enacted, will send thousands more offenders back into the community.
In implementing these criminal justice reforms, a portion of the savings from reduced reliance on prison should be reserved, or other funds provided, so that the federal probation system can adequately meet what is certain to be increasing responsibilities.
March marked the 90th anniversary of the Federal Probation Act, which established professional probation staff to serve as the “eyes and ears” of federal judges throughout the country. More than 30 bills were introduced in Congress before the Federal Probation Act finally was signed into law in March 1925 by President Calvin Coolidge.
This concept, which was so novel 90 years ago, is an essential component of our current-day criminal justice system.
With 5,500 probation officers, most having advanced degrees and several years of experience, the federal probation system is highly effective and internationally recognized. The recidivism rate for persons under federal post-conviction supervision is roughly one-third that of offenders released from state prisons.
Federal supervision facilitates the payment of an estimated $850 million a year in fines, restitution and assessments; more than $1 billion in income taxes; support for more than 135,000 dependents; and the performance of 600,000 community service hours. All at a cost of $9 a day per offender, roughly 10 percent of the cost of imprisonment.
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. An onslaught of new cases could upset this balance to the detriment of both the community and those offenders who seek and would benefit from rehabilitation. However, when criminal justice reforms are discussed, far too often their impact on probation is absent from the conversation.
President Coolidge called probation “the right hand of justice.” Surely we can't expect our criminal justice system to function successfully with one hand tied behind its back.
Irene M. Keeley, is a federal judge in the Northern District of West Virginia (Clarksburg). She is chair of the Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the policy-making body for the federal judiciary. She welcomes readers comments.