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The Short Arm of the Law

Ian MacDougall

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In November 2010, Steven Vargas, a federal probation officer in New York, received a call from a detective in Minnesota. Police in St. Paul had arrested 24-year-old Douglas Luke Robinette, who had confessed to producing child pornography and distributing it via email. He had shared some of that porn (Robinette's computer contained more than 18,000 images and 900 videos) with someone he knew only by an email address: Eight months earlier, the man with that address, Anthony Brooks, had walked out of a federal courthouse in lower Manhattan to begin a 10-year probation sentence for possessing child pornography.

The judiciary employs nearly 6,000 probation and pretrial services officers. Unlike most law enforcement officers, they police an already-identified population of accused or convicted felons. While most of them are no danger to society, a subset - like Anthony Brooks or violent offenders - pose a significant threat. And their numbers are rising. A steady wave of convicts released from federal prison has flooded the probation system in recent years - with more than 6,000 probationers added between 2010 and 2012 - and court officials expect that trend to continue in the foreseeable future. At the same time, policymakers on Capitol Hill have left federal probation offices with less and less money each year to pay for staff and programs needed to monitor this swelling population.

"I think we're at the bare bone," said Michael J. Fitzpatrick, the Southern District of New York's chief probation officer. "I'm going to have to take any resources I have next year and start trying to replace officers."

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