US Federal Probation 

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Q and A with Chief of US Federal Probation

When authorities target a person for prosecution, it makes a lot of sense to learn from subject-matter experts. Today, we offer information from Chris Maloney, a man who built a career with state and federal probation offices. He worked at every stage, including serving as chief US Probation Officer for two separate jurisdictions.

In support of the mission of our nonprofit, Chris offered insight that we will distribute to our audience.

The bullet-point list below offers links to the responses Chris gave to questions I asked about Supervised Release:

How can a person prepare for better outcomes from US Probation?

A person can prepare for a better outcome from US Probation by building a case of honesty and transparency.

As Chris tells us, we should all remember that the probation officer works for the judicial branch of the system. Judges rely upon probation officers to gather information to help them understand a person before sentencing. The more information a judge has, the better a judge will feel about the sentence he dispenses.

If the person wants to influence proceedings favorably, he will serve himself well by speaking openly with the probation officer.

During the pre-plea period, a person may not want to discuss anything that could compromise the defense attorney’s efforts. The person may not wish to speak about the case, but the person could serve himself well by opening up about such issues as:

  • Educational background,
  • Employment history,
  • Family and community ties,
  • Contributions to society,
  • Social network
  • Goals and plans

As Chris said, the more information a person provides, the judge will know about an individual’s role in society. It’s always crucial to remember that a person should think about mitigation at every stage of the journey.

How do defense attorneys react to your advice?

Some defense attorneys support the guidance that Chris gave, but others want to quarterback all proceedings, and they discourage people from interacting with probation officers. Each person should understand the implications to make an informed decision.

During the pretrial stage, Chris said, defense attorneys do not want to see a free flow of information. They do not want anything that will compromise the possibility of a better outcome.

Yet a person facing challenges should still look at the landscape ahead. When federal authorities bring charges, sentencing hearings follow in most cases. Even though a person may not want to discuss any aspect of the case, the person should begin documenting a journal or building a mitigation strategy. Creating a suitable mitigation strategy takes time. No one can prepare a comprehensive mitigation strategy in the final hour. 

Chris offers guidance on ways that a person can begin building a case that may make a favorable impression on the judge.

If a person pleads guilty or a jury convicts a person, the probation officer will begin working to prepare the presentence investigation. During that rush, it may be challenging to memorialize factors that could help a defense attorney build a case for leniency.

Typically, judges do not have any backstory on an individual. They rely upon the presentence investigation report that a probation officer prepares. For this reason, a person should take the initiative to speak openly and honestly, but also to build a solid case to show:

  • The impact that crime has on victims and society,
  • The lessons learned from the experience,
  • The steps a person takes to reconcile with society,
  • A person’s efforts to show why he will not break the law again.

Anyone can say that he is sorry and that he will miss his children. Few people take the time to build an effective mitigation strategy. Learn best practices, and create tools, tactics, and resources that will make a believer of the probation officer.

How does a PSR influence a transition to Supervised Release?

The transition from confinement to Supervised Release begins with a review of the Presentence Investigation Report, the PSR.

Before starting supervision of a case, a probation officer will review the presentence investigation report in search of information that he may need to address.

In anticipation of that initial meeting, a person may strive to build a positive record. No one can change the past. But if a person creates a narrative to memorialize how hard he or she has worked to overcome “triggers” or risk factors, the probation officer may look upon him with favor.

For example, if the person has a documented history of alcoholism, the person may begin seeking treatment proactively. If a person has a history of anger, the person may attend anger-management classes. Each person should build a solid record to show why he may be a worthy candidate for mercy, and he should think about the different stages of the journey.

In the weeks, months, years, and decades ahead, many stakeholders will rely upon that probation officer’s assessment in the PSR.

How to influence Supervised Release from prison?

A person can begin to influence the term of Supervised Release while at the start of a prison journey. It all starts by documenting the progress a person makes, and creating a record to show that the person is aware of risk factors.

Chris spoke with me about a comprehensive risk-assessment tool that probation officers use. During the initial meeting, the officer will hand the person a quiz with 80 questions. The person’s responses to those questions will help the probation officer gauge the appropriate risk level, from:

  1. Low risk to
  2. Moderate-low risk to
  3. Moderate risk,
  4. High risk.

Higher risk levels will result in higher levels of supervision. At the same time, Chris said, probation officers have more resources to dispense to people at high risk. 

If a person wants to enjoy a higher level of liberty, that person should anticipate steps he can take to show a probation officer why he is not at risk of recidivating.

Together, we will develop a course that people may use to prepare for the best outcome on Supervised Release.

What can a person expect on Supervised Release?

While on Supervised Release, a person can expect the probation officer to want to help the transition. The probation officer will offer programs and introduce services that may help a person.

When people serve lengthy terms in prison, life changes. Complications can follow. Some of the typical problems that Chris mentioned include:

  • Loss of family or community support,
  • Loss of viable employment prospects,
  • Troubles with substance abuse,
  • Poor health

If a person faces such challenges, the probation officer may place the person in a high-risk category. By placing him in a high-risk category, the probation officer may take a more active interest in the person’s decisions. In theory, the probation system is non-punitive. The person on Supervised Release, however, may want a higher level of liberty.

to get a higher level of liberty, a person should strive to build a record that will build trust with the probation officer. On the flip side, if a person falls to minimal levels of supervision, the person may not receive access to the same support services.

Each person should think about what will work best, and speak honestly with probation about crafting a strategy to succeed.

How do probation officers feel about self-employment?

The probation officer is there to help, and he may support a person’s plan to pursue self-employment.

Chris reminded us that, at least in theory, when a person transitions to Supervised Release, the person has moved beyond the punitive phase. While on Supervised Release, the probation officer should have an open mind. For some people, being self-employed may work better and for other people, a more conventional “job” may make more sense. In our view, we urge people to listen to the totality of the responses Chris gave. He suggested that people should be open and honest with the probation officer. The more a person can document the journey, the more credibility he can build. That credibility may open more opportunities, too.

What challenges does a person have with travel requests?

A person on Supervised Release may face some challenges when requesting permission to travel. The more a person prepares, the more likely a person will be to overcome those challenges for travel requests..

Chris explained that probation officers consider many factors when deliberating over whether to grant a person’s request to travel outside of the district. Besides the supervisory risk level, the probation officer will consider:

  • whether the person has a history of substance abuse,
  • whether the person has been current with financial obligations,
  • whether the person shows a record of stability.

Not all probation officers will handle travel requests the same. Some may approve travel quickly, while others may not respond to requests. I met people in prison that told me horror stories about their experience with travel requests. A person should learn as much as possible about the experience of Supervised Release. If a person anticipates complications, a person can begin to lay out a plan to get the best experience. By documenting a person’s journey, the person may have more success in persuading probation officers to approve travel requests.

Communications with other formerly incarcerated people:

The rules of probation put limitations on communication between people that have felony convictions. Sometimes, probation officers revoke a person’s Supervised Release for violating this rule.

A person serves time in the community of felons. While in that community, the people form friendships. My conviction resulted in my serving more than 9,000 days in prisons of every security level. While in prison, rules prohibited me from visiting with any person that I did not know prior to my imprisonment. When I concluded my sentence and transitioned to Supervised Release, rules prohibited me from communicating with other people convicted of felony crimes—unless my probation officer approved the request. The preparations that I made while serving my sentence made a favorable impression on my probation officer. She authorized me to travel, work for myself, and to interact with other people going through the system.

During our interview, Chris told me about statistics that influence policy decisions. Those statistics show that when people who have felony convictions interact, their rate of recidivism goes up. The more a person knows about those policies, the more capable a person becomes to create a strategy to achieve a goal. I had a goal of building a career around all the lessons that I learned while growing through prison. To build my business, I would need to interact with people convicted of felony crimes. I had to build a record, a story, and a business plan that would persuade my probation officer to authorize such interactions.

The more a person reveals to the probation officer, the better off that person will be to get the appropriate level of supervision.

What should people expect to report while on Supervised Release?

The probation officer has the discretion on what to require a person to submit on the monthly report. Typically, those reports include information about the following topics:

  • Where do you live
  • Where to you work
  • What is the status of your financial accounts
  • Did you have any interaction with law enforcement
  • Did you have any interaction with other people convicted of crimes

People should keep in mind that if they make a false statement to a probation officer, the probation officer may bring charges for either a technical violation or the probation officer may initiate proceedings that could lead to a new criminal charge. Either of those actions could potentially lead to further incarceration. For these reasons, a prudent person will keep exceptional records.

What prompts revocation of Supervised Release, or violations?

Chris described the two different types of violations.

  • Technical violation: probation officers may bring a technical violation against a person that fails to comply with the standard conditions of supervised release. Those types of violations may include requesting credit without prior approval from a probation officer, or traveling outside of the jurisdiction without permission, or interacting with a person known to engage in criminal behavior.
  • New criminal conduct: probation officers may initiate a revocation proceeding against a person who violates a federal or state law.

Chris tells us that if a person is open and honest with a probation officer, and a person abides by the conditions of Supervised Release, the person should not have a problem completing the term without too much interference. The probation officer has discretion. The individual should build a record that would advance his reputation for trustworthiness. If the probation officer doesn’t trust the individual, the conditions of supervision can be more invasive.

A revocation proceeding, he said, is very much like a trial. The probation officer, and perhaps a prosecutor, will build a case against the individual. The individual may strive to build a defense. The judge will make a decision on the outcome.

One factor that all people should consider, Chris reminds us, is that probation officers work for the judge. The judge expects the probation officer to file reports regularly. Probation officers have a duty to apprise the judge of good behavior, and bad behavior. For these reasons, I would recommend that a person build a record of transparency and honesty. These basic lessons in self-advocacy can help a person emerge from the journey more successfully.

What if a probation officer isn’t responsive to reasonable requests?

Sometimes a person doesn’t do his or her job. This isn’t limited to probation. In every sector, we find some people who want to pursue excellence at every turn. In those same sectors we find people who don’t care. Probation isn’t any different.

A person on Supervised Release should use critical-thinking skills. Consider the following questions:

  • In what ways can I use my time today to influence the way that others respond to me?
  • What makes me different from other people on Supervised Release?
  • What goals do my probation officer have?
  • How can I influence my probation officer to work with me rather than against me?

Those kinds of questions may help a person work more effectively with a probation officer. If a person finds the probation officer to be nonresponsive to basic requests, the person should consider which battles he wants to fight. Sometimes it makes sense to lose the battle in order to win the war. What’s the war? It’s to become a fully functioning citizen, without any restrictions, at the soonest possible time. Every person must navigate that strategy. Chris suggested that if a probation officer fails to respond to simple requests, the person may consider letting the officer know that he may reach out to the supervisory probation officer. That advance notification may prompt a probation officer to respond. It may not yield the response a person wants, but if the officer offers a reason, the person may get a better understanding.

Best-practice prep for sentencing and Supervised Release:

Chris walks us through what he observed while overseeing probation departments in several different jurisdictions. According to his observations, a person will advocate for himself best if he builds a record of transparency and communication. That transparency and communication should start at the beginning of a journey, from the moment a person comes into the system.

When prosecutors bring a charge against a person, that individual will appear before a magistrate judge. The magistrate judge makes a decision on whether to let the person go home on bond, and the magistrate judge remains with the case until the time when a US District Court Judge will take over the case. For this reason, Chris suggested that a person should keep the magistrate judge apprised of his or her activities. If the person is doing well, the person should write reports to the magistrate judge. In time, the magistrate judge may become a positive advocate for the person at sentencing.

Although a person may have a courageous defense attorney on his team, the person should work hard to advocate for himself. That investment in self-advocacy will pay off at sentencing, through the prison, and also on the other side when the term of Supervised Release begins. The more a person communicates, the more influence he may have on prospective stakeholders that could, potentially, become an advocate. Some people, he said, will even connect with former prosecutors and former prison officials to build a record. That record may help with supervised release and even early termination of supervised release.

Probation, Designations, and Placement?

The Bureau of Prisons uses a custody-and-classification system to assess the appropriate security level of each person. Those levels include:

  • Maximum security
  • High security
  • Medium security
  • Low security
  • Minimum security
  • Administrative level

During my 9,500 days in prison, I served a portion of my sentence in prisons of every security level. The more a person knows about the system, the more capable the person becomes to engineer his way to the appropriate facility. That facility will correspond to the person’s custody-and-classification scoring. And the people that determine an initial classification will rely upon a few factors, including:

  • The sentencing judge’s statement of reasons,
  • The judgment order,
  • The presentence investigation report

For this reason, a person should work to build a persuasive case showing why a particular facility would be most appropriate. The person may ask the probation officer to include that information in the presentence investigation report. And through counsel, the person may ask the judge to make a judicial recommendation—citing the reason for the recommendation. Again, think about self-advocacy at every stage.

Ultimately, the Bureau of Prisons will determine where to designate the person. Yet a person who understands the process would be wise to build a strategy to influence designations.

How does the RDAP program influence supervision?

In the Bureau of Prisons, the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) can result in a person receiving a significant time cut. Depending upon sentence length, the administrative time could be, six months, nine months, or 12 months. The probation officer will play an influential role in whether the person qualifies for RDAP. When the BOP releases the person to society, the probation officer will play a supervisor role to ensure the person attends the “after-care” training. This after-care supervision may include a requirement for more regular testing. Those testing services may require the person to leave work without expectations, and the supervision may place limitations on the person’s liberty.

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