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July 5, 2016

Detailing how challenges go up for federal probation officers as the federal prison population does down

The Wall Street Journal has this interesting new article discussing one of many echo effects of a large number of federal prisoners being released early in recent years due to various federal sentencing developments.  The article is headlined "Changes in Sentencing Policy Raise Pressure on Probation Officers: Wave of early inmate releases raises concerns over preventing relapses among high-risk population."  Here is how it gets started:

Karrie Springstead tries not to stand directly in front of the ex-inmate’s apartment door as she knocks. The veteran probation officer doesn’t expect trouble, but she never knows who might be on the other side. “It’s the third party that makes me a little more leery,” says Ms. Springstead, 31 years old. “It’s the people you don’t know, and they don’t know me.”

Ms. Springstead is one of 5,500 federal probation officers who oversee roughly 180,000 people across the country.  The current push for shorter prison sentences is putting more work on the force, federal officials say, and raising concerns that critical details might be missed that could prevent relapses among a high-risk population.

Overhauling the criminal-justice system, including shorter sentences, is a hot topic in Washington, with some Democrats and Republicans increasingly coalescing behind a view that incarceration times have gotten too long.  Even before any major bills have passed, however, federal officials have begun chipping away at sentences.  Since 2010, 14,100 people have been freed early because of changes in sentencing law and policies, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, and the federal probation case load has increased 7% since 2010.  In the same period, the budget of the U.S. Office of Probation and Pretrial Services Office rose 0.5%, to $902 million.

The proportion of federal ex-inmates whose probation has been revoked dropped to 27% in 2015 from 29% in 2010.  That decline has been attributed in part to improved risk assessments that are more sophisticated than previous ones and include a wider array of factors, from an offender’s education levels to family makeup.

But probation officials say the drop is due chiefly to the fact there are fewer officers, relative to the number of ex-inmates, to spot violations, so more offenders are remaining free.  “There is a tie between revocation rates going down and a shortage of officers in the community checking on people,” said Steve Skinner, chief of the federal probation office in Oklahoma City, where Ms. Springstead works....

A change in 2014 by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to the way drug sentences are calculated shows the potential impact.  The federal probation office asked for a year to prepare for the change, and hired 388 new probation officers, though attrition cut the net gain to 150, said Matthew Rowland, who heads the office.  As a result of the sentencing change, a service that usually gets about 1,130 new charges a week got about 5,000 in the space of a weekend around last Nov. 1.  Another 26,000 will be released early in coming years due to the change, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

July 5, 2016 at 06:30 PM | Permalink

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