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Tuesday, Sep 02, 2014
Crime & Courts

Budget cuts straining federal probation officers

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TAMPA — As Congress prepares to debate continued sequestration of the federal budget, court officials say cuts to their budgets have already jeopardized public safety and further expected budget slashing will make things worse.

Probation and pretrial services officials, who are responsible for tracking people in the community who are accused and convicted of federal crimes, say they have had to scale back on testing and treatment and are struggling to provide necessary checks.

Chief Judge Anne C. Conway joined 86 other chief federal judges in writing Vice President Joe Biden about their concerns over the effects of sequestration on the courts, including in probation and pretrial services. ”Our current staffing level is the lowest has been since 1999 despite significant workload growth during this same period of time,” the letter says.

Public safety is threatened, the letter adds, because of cutbacks that mean “less deterrence, detection and response to possible criminal activity by federal defendants in the community.”

“Most of the Tampa area has someone on supervision living next to them or working with them or interacting with them,” said Joe Collins, chief probation officer for the Middle District of Florida. “I don’t want to be dramatic and say now all of a sudden things are going to hell in a hand basket. But I would be naďve not to says something bad is more likely to happen because of this.”

“There’s only so much stress you can put on officers and the risk that’s associated with this type of work,” said Sheila Jacoby, chief pretrial services officer.

Federal pretrial services officers monitor defendant awaiting trial who are not incarcerated, while probation officers keep track of people who are serving probation sentences, usually after serving federal prison terms.

They supervise electronic monitoring, provide counseling and therapy and try to keep the accused and convicted people in the community from committing more crimes, while trying to point them in the right direction.

Both Collins and Jacoby said their offices have been pro-actively trimming costs over the last few years, finding smarter ways to accomplish their missions in anticipation of lean times. The sequester cuts, they say, have come without any thought to their impact.

The most serious hit probation took was a 20 percent cut in the part of its budget that covers drug tests, mental health treatment and electronic monitoring. While pretrial services took a similar hit, Jacoby said she was able to get supplemental funding from another source.

They have also had to trim their staffs and are bracing for more severe workforce cutbacks.

Collins said they’re prioritizing available treatment, giving it to offenders who are deemed higher risk. But taking resources away from people who are doing well may mean those offenders will stop doing well.

All this is happening while officials say that the monitored population has become more volatile and the officer staff is becoming less experienced. Since 2009 the average case load for probation officers has increased from 50.5 cases per officer to 57.3, while pretrial services officers have seen their average case load rise from 33 in 2009 to 52 this year.

Collins’ staff has shrunk from 185 in 2008 to 155 now and is on the verge of getting smaller. “We’re at 73 percent” of the formula required to shoulder the workload, Collins said. “Not only do we have fewer staff on board, but the workload is higher. Not only is it higher, but our risk prediction instruments tell us we’re working with a more volatile population, one with a more likelihood of re-offending.”

Collins said the Middle District of Florida is tops in the 11th Circuit - which covers Florida, Alabama and Georgia - for the number of sex offender cases. It’s fourth in the nation for the total number of sex offenders. That number has grown from 69 in 2008 to 196 this year.

According to Jacoby, 84 defendants interviewed by pretrial probation officers in 2008 were charged with federal sex offenses. Last year, that number was 124.

“Sex offenders are everywhere,” Jacoby said, “and if they’re everywhere we need to be there. And we’re there on Halloween telling them not have their front porch light on. We’re out there on Halloween making sure these folks aren’t doing anything to entice a child… Don’t put anything in your window at Christmas to make it look inviting.”

And while cuts to pretrial services may mean more defendants have to stay in jail while they wait for their cases to be resolved, Jacoby noted that would wind up costing taxpayers more money. Pretrial supervision costs under $8 a day, while holding someone in jail costs an average of $77 a day.

“Pretrial is just so used to operating lean,” Jacoby said. “It’s to the point that we’re beyond lean. There’s just nowhere to cut anything. When you don’t even have those basics that you need to support an office.. there’s just nowhere to take stuff anymore. You keep hoping every year that you’ve hit rock bottom.”

Jacoby said the biggest stress is worrying about officers’ safety.

“My nightmare scenario, I guess it’s twofold - one of my officers getting hurt or a defendant doing something that - that can happen when you’re doing everything your supposed to do - that we don’t have the resources to provide the supervision a defendant is supposed to have and a defendant does something in the community and someone gets hurt.”

One Tampa probationer whom authorities see as a potential success story, Susan Leonard, 55, estimates she’s had six or eight failed state probation sentences. She said her past probation terms “never really got started” before she would get in trouble for violating the terms.

She’s been getting in trouble since she was 18 for charges like worthless checks, shoplifting and other offenses she says were related to drug use.

Leonard met recently with her probation officer, Carlos Colón, in the parking lot of a Tampa hotel where she is working as a housekeeper. She’s been on federal probation for more than two years after serving 3 1/2 years in federal prison for a cocaine distribution conspiracy. She has two more years to go and feels confident she can complete her probation.

Colón, she said, will “come by and we’ll sit and talk and he’ll ask me how things are going as far as my daughter.” She said her federal probation experience has been positive.

Another probation, Gilbert Sutton, also received a visit from Colón recently.

Sutton has been a frequent guest of the Florida correctional system.

Now pushing 50, Sutton says he’s been getting in trouble since he was 10.

Before he was prosecuted in federal court, he had 11 felony convictions, serving at least nine state prison sentences for charges like cocaine, weapons offenses and aggravated assault.

Now on federal probation following a prison sentence for a firearms charge, he says he’s done with crime.

“I’m a slow learner,” he says, talking at his mother’s kitchen table with Colón.

What’s different this time, Sutton says, is his experience with the federal system. The prison in Allenwood, Pa., was a horrible, violent place, way worse than any state prison he’s been in, Sutton says. And when he got out, his probation experience has been different.

He said he never made it more than three months on state probation before being put back behind bars for violations. He’s been on federal probation without incident for 2 1/2 years now and hopes to be allowed to complete his five-year probation sentence early sometime next year.

He says when he was on probation before, “I was running with my head chopped off. My state probation was like I didn’t really care. I was out on the streets ripping and running. They wouldn’t actually sit down and actually talk to me and try to guide me in the right direction.”

Sutton said Colón sat down with him, suggested he attend alcoholics and narcotics anonymous and talked to him about how he wanted to live his life. His federal probation officers, he says, “helped me out by sending me in the right directions.”

esilvestrini@tampatrib.com

813-259-7837

Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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