Legislation moving through Congress that could result in the early release of an estimated 34,000 federal prisoners has judges and probation officials both intrigued and concerned.
"People can have early release, and it can be a significant time off of their sentence," U.S. District Chief Judge Joy Flowers Conti told a gathering of her colleagues, public defenders, probation officials and prison managers Thursday. The potential challenge: "There's going to be a mass number of individuals released in the next year."
If the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act of 2014 becomes law -- and its prospects seem good after a 15-2 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee a month ago -- it could dramatically accelerate the release of about one-sixth of the federal prison population.
The legislation excludes sex offenders, terrorists, violent criminals, repeat offenders, organized crime members and major fraud convicts, and requires assessment of the risk inherent in releasing each prisoner early. It would essentially double the amount of time off a sentence that a prisoner can earn for behaving and participating in programs, and would let the best-behaved, lowest-risk inmates serve the ends of their sentences in their communities.
The question is whether the probation system, recently hit with an 8 percent budget cut under the federal belt-tightening known as sequestration, can handle the new clientele.
Belinda Ashley, chief U.S. probation officer for Western Pennsylvania, said her staff is already saddled with caseloads of 60 to 65 released convicts -- well above the recommended level of around 45 cases.
"When you have higher caseloads, you're just putting out fires," Ms. Ashley said. "We need more officers," but she can't afford to hire any.
In the long term, the act shouldn't increase the number of probationers, according to Seth Larson, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and one of the act's prime sponsors.
"For much of the time that inmates are being supervised by probation, [the Bureau of Prisons] will be bearing the cost, which is a change from current law," Mr. Larson wrote in response to questions.
The act instructs the Bureau of Prisons to reach agreements with U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services regarding how to handle home confinement and community supervision, but it does not go into specifics on the arrangement.
Reducing recidivism -- the tendency of people released from prison to commit new crimes -- has been a focus of Judge Conti.
On Thursday, she gathered court personnel to hear the Rev. David T. Link, a former law professor turned priest and now chaplain to six Indiana prisons and author of the crime-reduction manifesto titled, "Comerado, I Give you my Hand."
Rev. Link said that upon release, convicts need a safe place to live, a living-wage job, transportation, help maintaining sobriety, a support group and, most important, "a reason to change."
If the planning doesn't start behind bars, he said, inmates just "spend their time in prison thinking about how they can do the same things and not get caught this time. ... When we get to the point where we say we've got to release a lot of them, I don't want somebody who's bitter or angry to live next to me."
Ms. Ashley said that her employees start working with federal prisoners about four months before their releases, when they are typically in halfway houses. Probation officers check out the prisoner's planned living arrangements, medical and mental health needs, employment options and other factors.
The hardest thing, she said, is instilling the "reason to change" that Rev. Link talked about.
She said her office is working with community groups like the Positive Initiative to Reinforce Change, which is run by two ex-offenders and meets weekly to help members to complete "corporate plans" to redirect their lives.
Her office also conducts 12-week programs for recently released inmates who need help with goal-setting and understanding consequences. There are limited slots available and a waiting list, she noted.
So what if Congress decides to release thousands of prisoners early?
"The truth is, we're going to get these guys, and I've got to gear up," Ms. Ashley said. "But it costs money."
Rich Lord: email@example.com, 412-263-1542 or on Twitter @richelord.