November 30, 2014

Probation caseload in western Missouri becomes an even greater challenge

11-30-2014 Missouri:

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. ..Continued.. by MARK MORRIS

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