As advocates at the federal level continue the push to modify sentencing laws for low-level offenders, the burden on most areas of corrections lessen — but not for post-conviction services.
5,500 federal probation officers monitor a growing population that currently sits at 180,000 ex-offenders.
The changes to the US Sentencing Commission guidelines, which reduce sentences for certain crimes, are meant to eliminate disparities between prison terms and drug crimes. The changes have increased the probation caseload roughly one percent every year since 2010, meaning over 14,000 people have been released early and given probation.
In the same period, however, the U.S. Office of Probation and Pretrial Services budget only increased by .5%, leaving little funding to hire additional officers. So while the number of ex-inmates under post-release supervision has increased dramatically, the same cannot be said for post-conviction funding.
The number of releases outpacing probation officers draws concern because some believe that the increased workload decreases effectiveness of the officers monitoring them. The Wall Street Journal points to western Oklahoma as an example where 96 probation officers are tasked with monitoring 900 probationers.
Shorter sentences for those who deserve it are both morally and fiscally responsible, however the added workload it places on the limited number of probation and parole officers increases the likelihood of an over-worked force missing things that would otherwise be caught.
Technology has mitigated some of that through innovative ways such as automatic monitors that alert probation officers when one of their individuals fails a breathalyzer test. Also, many have real-time trackers on their phones that allow them to monitor their probationers.
But for continued access to these technological advances, post-release services need to be able to afford them. It’s important that as reformers and advocates look for cost-saving alternatives to prison, we remember that as prison populations decrease, ex-offenders requiring post-release services increase.