Using fewer probation officers to supervise a growing number of hardened ex-cons has for years been a tough business for western Missouri’s top federal probation and parole officer.
For the last decade, probation officers here have supervised one of the nation’s riskiest populations of seasoned offenders after their release from federal prison, said Kevin Lyon, who from Kansas City leads the probation and parole office for the western district.
And now other court districts around the country are feeling his pain, a new study shows.
An October report by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts showed that a dwindling number of federal probation officers now must supervise a growing population of released offenders who have the most extensive criminal histories in the system.
Those offenders have more convictions for the most serious prior offenses of any offenders sentenced by U.S. courts.
Nationwide, that population exploded by 19 percent between 2003 and 2013, the report noted.
That slice of offenders in western Missouri jumped from 8 percent of Lyon’s probation caseload in 2004 to 18 percent this year.
And fewer probation officers are available to look after them. Federal probation staffing nationwide declined about 5 percent over the last decade, a trend mirrored locally, officials said.
But supervising a challenging probation caseload has been part of Lyon’s professional life for a decade.
Every year since 2004, western Missouri has ranked in the top 10 of the country’s 94 judicial districts when, using a standard risk assessment tool, all of its probationers were ranked on their risk to reoffend.
Western Missouri has been in the top five annually since 2012, Lyon noted.
Those convicted of illegal drug possession or sales generally do reasonably well on probation because of a robust budget that pays for substance abuse treatment programs, Lyon noted.
But keeping offenders who were convicted of violent and gun-related crimes out of trouble has been much more difficult, Lyon said, because it’s too easy for them to fall back into their criminal habits.
Close monitoring and frequent meetings with probation officers are the keys to what success there is.
“We’ve found that nothing works but control,” Lyon said. “We just have to watch them.”
If he can get 75 percent of his current crop of probationers — which numbers about 1,700 — to finish probation without being sent back to prison, he’ll count that as success.
Demarko Collins, 25, is typical of the challenges facing federal probation officers in western Missouri.
A federal magistrate flatly declined to consider bail for Collins in 2007 when federal prosecutors charged him with carjacking and illegally using a firearm to take a Dodge Charger from a man parked in a nightclub jazz and blues club parking lot.
“Defendant has an extremely violent history,” Magistrate Judge John Maughmer concluded in a written order jailing Collins before trial.
Collins served a six-year, eight-month sentence in federal prison but soon found himself back in trouble with law enforcement, court records show.
In October 2013 and February 2014, he purportedly led Kansas City police on high-speed chases, according to Jackson County court records. About the same time, he quit reporting to his federal probation officer and failed to submit to drug tests or attend substance abuse counseling.
A judge last summer revoked his probation, or “supervised release” as it is known in the federal system, and ushered him back to prison.
This challenge now facing federal probation officers is an unintended consequence of the war on drugs and the rush by Congress to federally prosecute crimes that previously had been handled in state courts, experts said. Gun and drug offenses, and even violent crimes such as carjackings, once rarely merited federal attention, they said.
As long mandatory minimum sentences kicked in in the 1990s, policymakers didn’t plan for how they would manage when all those offenders left prison, said Martin F. Horn, executive director of the New York State Sentencing Commission.
“They never thought about the impact it would have on the federal probation system 15 or 20 years later,” said Horn, who also lecturers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “At some point, prison terms end. People return to the community.”
Closer cooperation between federal and local law enforcement also sent more criminals to federal prison, said Bob Storey, a former U.S. probation officer in California. Local police and prosecutors worked with federal investigators to charge repeat offenders in U.S. District Court, rather than sending them back to state court.
“They’re tired of this guy … because he’s been a pain,” Storey said. “They say, ‘Let’s send him to the feds. He’ll be a career offender and will get a ton of time.’”
Something like that has been going on for years in western Missouri and Kansas, which last year ranked second and third in the nation in prosecuting defendants on federal firearms charges. (The District of Puerto Rico was first.)
The change in Missouri started in late 1999, when authorities announced a new program to target what they saw as the most violent offenders in the community. Felons caught illegally possessing firearms would thereafter be prosecuted in federal, rather than state, court.
That prosecution strategy systematically weighted the court dockets with repeat offenders who, by definition, had more serious criminal histories and drew longer sentences than first-time offenders.
The firearms crackdown also changed the complexion of the federal criminal docket. Felon-in-possession cases sometimes consumed a third of the local criminal caseload.
“It’s these prior records that drive the problem,” Lyon said. “1999 changed everything.”
Offenders on probation after release from a long prison stint can be a needy bunch, noted a 2012 study funded by the Justice Department.
More than a quarter of them have drug abuse issues, and a similar percentage have been diagnosed with some kind of mental illness. And 43 percent have alcohol abuse somewhere in their history.
A lack of a positive support network after release leaves almost 20 percent needing financial help and housing and transportation assistance, the study found.
When such prisoners are released, supervising them requires services to help keep them from lapsing back into a life of crime, the report from the court’s administrative office noted.
“Over the last decade, the prevalence of mental health and substance abuse problems of the overall offender population also has increased, increasing the strain on resources,” the study said.
Offenders in all criminal history categories requiring mental health treatment increased by 60 percent, while those needing substance abuse services increased by a third, the study noted.
And a 2010 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs’ Association found that many more mentally ill people are incarcerated in jails and prisons than are being treated in hospitals.
That underscores the need for better mental health services after offenders are released, said Risdon Slate, a professor at Florida Southern College.
“De facto, the prison system has become the mental health system,” Slate said. “To get them reintegrated into society, we need to deal with employment issues, substance abuse issues and mental health issues.”
Probation officers often are called to create a patchwork of these services during lean budget years, Storey said.
“You just have to keep playing that game,” Storey said. “One year you have 12 beds in detox, the next year you don’t.”
Lyon said the federal budget crisis of late 2012 forced him to offer buyouts to about 10 percent of his staff. He said he’s since made up about half of that loss with new hires and now has about 75 probation officers working throughout western Missouri.
With fewer officers, Lyon devoted more attention to his most challenging cases while supervising his low-risk offenders, who typically do well on probation, with a much lighter hand.
Still, he said that having the resources to hire more officers always would be welcome.
“It’s not like we’re pushing paper,” Lyon said. “We’re dealing with human lives and dangerous people.”