Federal Supervised Release Is a Wasteful Mess. A Bipartisan Bill in Congress Is Trying To Fix That.

June 4, 2024   |   Tags: , ,
probation | Illustration: Lex Villena; Midjourney

When Daniel Brown was released early from federal prison in 2020, 15 years into a 42-year sentence for drug and firearm possession offenses, he was determined not to squander the chance he had been given.

By most outward measures, he's accomplished that. He's stayed out of trouble. He's a project manager at a construction company and married with children.

But like the vast majority of people convicted of a federal offense, Brown was also sentenced to supervision following his release, 10 years of it. That means that he's subject to numerous rules and monitoring by federal probation officers: random drug tests, restrictions on travel, and required pre-approval for basic adult freedoms.

For example, when Brown wants to take a weekend trip to visit his daughter, who lives out-of-state, he has to fill out a form stating where he is going, where he will be staying, and who will be there, and get it approved. He follows these rules scrupulously because despite four years of perfect compliance so far, one slip-up could send him back to prison for the rest of that long, long sentence. 

"Today, it's kind of pointless," Brown says of his supervised release. "It's been four years, no infractions, I run a company, my wife and I also have a real estate business, five kids."

But unless something changes, Brown will keep jumping through those hoops because there's no practical way for him to get his supervision terminated early.

When it was created in 1984, federal supervised release was supposed to be used sparingly to keep tabs on offenders who were public safety concerns or needed extra support to transition back into society. However, it's become used by default, and both criminal justice advocates and federal probation officers say it's clogging the system with thousands of people, like Brown, who have demonstrated that they probably don't need to be in it anymore. And it's sending many others back to prison for minor rule violations that might not warrant such a harsh response.

This growing consensus has led to the Safer Supervision Act, a bipartisan bill introduced by Sens. Chris Coons (D–Del.) and John Cornyn (T–Texas). Reps. Wesley Hunt (R–Texas) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D–Texas) have introduced a companion bill in the House. The legislation would streamline the federal supervised release system to give people like Brown a clear off-ramp to earn their way out.

Specifically, the bill would require courts to conduct individual assessments of the appropriateness of imposing supervision. It would also create an opportunity for a person who has served half of their term of supervised release (or two-thirds in the case of violent offenses) to petition a court for early termination, with a presumption in favor of termination if they can show good behavior and that they're not a public safety threat. Another provision would give judges discretion to avoid mandatory revocations for technical violations like missing a urinalysis appointment or a minor offense like misdemeanor drug possession.

"I'd be free today of the tether of the federal system if the legislation was in place," Brown says. 

The bill's supporters say it will not only reduce the strain on a system that currently costs taxpayers $500 million a year but incentivize good behavior and reduce recidivism. Jessica Jackson, chief advocacy officer at REFORM Alliance, says the bill "aims to restore supervised release to its original intended purpose and support successful reentry—while also reducing wasteful spending and cutting needless bureaucracy, so that the system works better for everyone."

Notably, the Safer Supervision Act has also been endorsed by law enforcement organizations, like the National District Attorneys Association and the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the latter of which is a lobbying group that represents federal law enforcement agents and officers from numerous agencies, including U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services. (Federal probation officers work for the judiciary, not the Justice Department.)

Doug Burris is the former chief probation officer for the Eastern District of Missouri. He was recognized for his work reducing recidivism and unemployment in his district, but over the course of his career, he watched the federal supervision system balloon.

"Currently the caseloads are just astronomical in the federal system, from some people that I've talked with," Burris says. "I saw that when I retired about five years ago as well. In fact, I started in 1995, and from then to now the total caseload in the federal system has about tripled."

The reason for this is that terms of supervised release are tacked onto nearly all federal prison sentences. In fiscal year 2022, 82 percent of federally sentenced offenders were sentenced to a term of supervised release, according to a 2023 Justice Department report.

This has created a system of correctional control nearly as large as the Bureau of Prisons'. (BOP) incarcerated population. In June of 2022, there were about 124,000 people under federal supervision, according to the Justice Department, compared to roughly 156,000 incarcerated in the BOP prison system today.

"Congress intended supervised release to be used sparingly—'for those and only those who needed it,'" says Erin Haney, deputy chief advocacy officer at the REFORM Alliance. "However, it is now tacked onto nearly all cases in which individuals are sentenced to federal prison—and it often serves not to deter crime or assist in reentry, as envisioned, but instead as an extension of punishment, which is actually prohibited under the code."

As Reason detailed in a feature story last year, probation systems across the U.S. have become a quagmire, transforming from rehabilitative models to a form of punishment that has become a secondary criminal justice system hiding in plain sight.

Burris, for example, recalls one case of an elderly woman who was convicted of cashing her husband's social security checks after he died. She was placed on supervision, including the lengthy intake process, home visits, and the whole song and dance.

"I think we're a lot better off supervising a sex offender, a terrorist, someone convicted of plotting a murder or something, rather than someone who will likely never be in a courtroom the rest of her life again," Burris says. "She had no record or anything like that."

For Brown, the restrictions actually inhibit his efforts to return to a normal life. For example, he is overseeing a contract between his company and a nearby Air Force base, but because he is on supervised release, he isn't allowed on a military installation.

"I can't do any of the meetings on the base, so I have to send project managers and try to keep it under wraps to the contract holders why I'm not coming out to the site," Brown says. "If we had a problem, I couldn't go. It really hampers me."

That's not the worst of it, though. Brown and his wife became foster parents after his release until Brown's probation officer found out and notified the foster agency, which removed the kids they had already placed at Brown's house.

"It was traumatic to say the least, after getting those children safe and settled," Brown says.

The REFORM Alliance's Haney recalls one instance where Judith Negron, a woman who received a commutation from former President Donald Trump, attended a White House event along with several other clemency recipients and megastar Kim Kardashian. 

Haney says Negron soon received a call from her probation officer warning her that he could write her up and have her sent back to prison for breaking a rule against associating with known felons—that is, the other clemency recipients at the White House. The office handling Negron's case denied her requests to participate in other criminal justice advocacy events.

Technical violations, like the kind Negron unwittingly ran afoul of, accounted for roughly two-thirds of revoked supervision cases in fiscal years 2021 and 2022, according to the Justice Department. And supporters of the bill say that's a huge reason to give judges more discretion to avoid mandatory revocations.

In the meantime, the federal government will continue spending resources on people with perfect compliance like Brown.

"I haven't needed anything from them the first four [years] and won't need anything the next six," Brown says, "but I'm still a cog in the machine, taking up time and energy."

The post Federal Supervised Release Is a Wasteful Mess. A Bipartisan Bill in Congress Is Trying To Fix That. appeared first on Reason.com.


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