The Short Arm of the Law

Police arresting a man for rioting Storrs Connecticut arrest; credit: Peter Casolino/Alamy Peter Casolino/Alamy

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.

At first, Brooks, who was in his mid-30s, seemed to be a model probationer. He met deadlines. He passed mandatory polygraphs. There were suspicions when the FBI contacted Vargas to say that a computer was streaming child pornography in the vicinity of Brooks's apartment, but an investigation by a probation officer turned up nothing. Then, a couple months later, Vargas got the call from Minnesota. A search of Brooks's Gmail account uncovered a large volume of child pornography exchanged with a 34-year-old El Paso resident named Miguel Gomez. To avoid tipping off either suspect, officials in Texas and New York agreed to coordinate searches of the two men's homes. In the meantime, Vargas and his colleagues kept close tabs on Brooks through surveillance and unannounced home visits.

On December 8, at 3 p.m., Vargas got an email from an assistant district attorney in Texas. Officers there had arrested Gomez earlier than planned. Worse, the arrest had made the local TV news. Worried that Brooks might see the report, Vargas quickly assembled a team of 12 probation officers to arrest the pornographer. His unease grew when the team discovered that Brooks wasn't at work. "He knows," Vargas thought. "He's going to run." At Brooks's home, nobody answered the door, but through a vent, Vargas could see inside. Brooks was pacing, a knife held to his wrist. The officers, with backup from the FBI, forced their way in and disarmed him. Computers seized from his home were brimming with child pornography organized into folders with names like "babies," "3yrboy" and "4yrboy."

In August 2013, a federal judge sentenced Brooks to 16 years in prison. The operation was a coup for the U.S. probation office in Manhattan. Today, however, thanks to several years of budget cuts, when officers in New York recount the story, it sounds more like an elegy than a victory march.

The debate over sequestration - the automatic budget cuts that went into effect on March 1 - has centered on Congress and executive branch agencies. Yet, it's the judicial branch that has felt the pinch most acutely. While accounting for only $7 billion, or two tenths of one percent of the national budget, the courts' budget nevertheless lost $350 million, or 5 percent, to the current sequester. The new budget deal in Washington promises to restore some of what sequestration cut, on top of a slight ad hoc increase in funding in October. But court officials say it's too early to tell what the deal means for the judiciary.

Sequestration hit after several years of flat funding for the courts. "In practice, that's a decrease, because our must-pay items - salaries and rent - have increased each year," Loretta A. Preska, the chief judge of the Southern District of New York, told me. (The district encompasses Manhattan, the Bronx, and several counties just north of New York City.) That sliced away the fat and then the muscle.

Sequestration is, in the metaphor frequently employed by people who work in the judiciary system, cutting bone. Salaries remain a must-pay item because the Constitution forbids lowering the wages of judges, and courts must hear all cases properly brought before them. Federal courts, notably, did not shut down in October. That leaves staff cuts. Between July 2011 and August 2013, according to court figures, the judiciary reduced its clerical and law enforcement staffing by 2,500 employees, or 12 percent. The bone-deep incisions are so severe that they prompted the chief judges of 87 federal districts to sign a letter to Vice President Joseph Biden in August pleading for increased funding. "The cuts have created an unprecedented financial crisis that is adversely affecting all facets of court operations," they wrote.

In the wake of sequestration, litigants have encountered delays and criminal defendants have had to contend with a dearth of court-appointed attorneys. But another constituency hurt by the sequester - the public - has gone largely unnoticed.

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."

Nationwide, a quarter of the available probation and pretrial services positions stand vacant. Sequestration has so strained this system that, court officials say, it's jeopardizing public safety.

The surveillance capabilities, speed, manpower, and time that secured Brooks's arrest - "those things are lost now," Vargas told me recently. That loss is particularly harmful in the Southern District of New York, where, as in many urban districts, the recidivism rate is higher than the national average - 19 percent of its nearly 3,000 supervised convicts violated their probation in 2012 versus 12 percent nationally.

Once every two weeks - on average - probation officers in the Southern District execute searches at the homes of convicted felons who they have reason to suspect are violating the terms of their release. "A couple years ago...every time I turned around [officers returned with] a gun or large quantities of drugs," said Michele Greer Bambrick, a senior probation officer and sentencing specialist who also handles evidence after searches. "I remember one day they had these eight big marijuana plants they were marching down Barclay [Street]. They recovered all sorts of firearms, from handguns to rifles. We've even seen a seized samurai sword."

As in Brooks's case, these searches can foil ongoing criminal enterprises. A mid-September search brought down a driver's license counterfeiting operation, according to Fitzpatrick. In another case, Vargas said, probation officers disrupted a drug trafficking scheme run through LaGuardia Airport in Queens. Officers seized $300,000 in cash.

A related program - high-intensity field operations (HIFO) - has met with similar success. In HIFOs, six or seven officers pay an unannounced visit - usually in the evening or early in the morning - to the home of a probationer at risk for recidivism. Arriving during off-hours heightens the deterrent effect. "In addition to individuals catching heat from the probation department, they're also going to catch it from their mother or grandmother, who's going to say, 'I don't like this. You get it together or you're out of here,' " said Shawnte Lorick, a senior probation officer.

On one recent HIFO visit, officers walked in on all the signs that their ward had become a serious drug dealer - heroin, crack, baggies, and scales. In another, according to court records, officers on a HIFO visit to the Bronx apartment of Julius Kornhauser, who had been convicted of tax fraud, noticed suspicious tax documents and seized his computer. To their surprise they found 700 images of child pornography.

Searches and HIFOs are, in the realm of public safety, cost-savers. Ordinary law-enforcement investigations are expensive and have to detect unknown criminals doing their utmost to stay unknown. Searches and HIFOs, meanwhile, target known offenders when there's reason to suspect they are committing fresh crimes. They can be prompted by as little as a call from an angry girlfriend or a failed drug test.

Two years of effective budget cuts culminating in sequestration has curtailed these programs and, ironically, driven up the cost of maintaining public safety. In recent months, the probation office in Manhattan has had to delay searches by up to a week. That impairs the efficacy of searches because the tip that prompted the search - say, a run-in with the police - might also tip off the target, Fitzpatrick said. "We need to search before the person gets home and destroys or moves evidence. Right now, we can't be sure we're always able to do that." As of the first week in October, the office had to cut back significantly the number of HIFOs for lack of manpower. Given its uncertain impact on the courts, the pending budget deal in Washington has not affected these cutbacks.

Nationwide, since July 2011, budget cuts have forced probation and pretrial services offices to slash their staffs by 600, or 7 percent, according to court statistics. At the same time, the number of people under supervision has soared. In the Southern District of New York, for example, between June 2012 and October 2013, the number of offenders on probation with a 70 to 90 percent likelihood of recidivism surged from 469 to 610. The American Probation and Parole Association recommends that each case officer have no more than 30 high-risk cases, and based on that ratio, the district should have added four officers in that year.

"Instead, we lost officers," Fitzpatrick told me. Officers now carry high-risk caseloads ranging from 50 cases and up. "We're at a point now where we can't lose any more positions." In 2014, five officers face mandatory retirement.

The consequences are palpable. When asked about what recent searches turned up - compared to the guns, drugs, and samurai swords of two years ago - Greer Bambrick told me: "Not much. I haven't seen many drugs, and I haven't seen any weapons."

Where 13 or 14 officers would have taken part in a search two years ago - like the raid that brought down Anthony Brooks - Lorick said, "now we're struggling to get six."

Delayed searches, less time in the field, and dwindling funding for electronic monitoring are the proximate results of budget cuts to the judiciary. But the second-order effects are what frightens court officials. Ask them why, and they'll say David Renz.

On March 14, Renz, a small man with a mop of jet black hair and a wispy goatee, approached Lori Bresnahan, a 47-year-old school librarian, and her 10-year-old daughter as they left gymnastics practice at the Great Northern Mall, in Clay, N.Y., a Syracuse suburb. Renz forced his way into Bresnahan's car and restrained her and her daughter with twist ties. After raping the 10-year-old, who later managed to flee, Renz stabbed Bresnahan repeatedly in the head and chest with a knife he had used earlier to cut away her daughter's clothing.

Only after Renz was in state custody did federal probation officers in Syracuse realize that something was amiss with one of their charges. In January, FBI agents had arrested Renz after discovering more than 100 gigabytes of child pornography on his computer. His bail conditions included "location monitoring" - wearing an electronic ankle bracelet that could detect whether he was at home. The day Renz killed Bresnahan, he had dismantled and reassembled the bracelet before leaving home. The alert the bracelet dispatched was similar to the 46 others it had registered - indicating tampering or removal - in the two months after Renz was released on bail. For the most part, the alerts were ignored.

An investigation faulted inadequate monitoring policy and practice in the Northern District of New York, and court officials promised to reexamine location monitoring policy - "within available funding." That qualification prompted Congressman Dan Maffei, a Democrat in whose district Bresnahan lived, to take to the House floor to inveigh against sequestration cuts to the judiciary.

"The answer from the courts is that their ability to keep it from happening again is limited because their funding was cut," he said. "We owe [the victims] an end to the sequester cuts."

Others draw a casual connection between the budget and Renz. "Look - you cannot say that the budgetary constraints every one has been working under for the last several years didn't contribute to that in some way, shape, or form," Greer Bambrick, the senior probation officer, said. "If they don't have the manpower, every time someone's bracelet pings the wrong way and sends a message - they can't just run out and check it."

Because officers have to respond to such alerts at all hours of the day, location-monitoring cases are particularly onerous. In the Southern District of New York, location-monitoring officers carry about 40 cases, well above the 26 recommended by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Jason Lerman, a pretrial services officer in the district who works on such cases, said that caseload approaches the human limit. Any higher and officers "will get burned out very quickly, and they won't be able to supervise these defendants appropriately," he said.

The Southern District's pretrial services office has 16 vacancies and lacks funding to fill them. "These caseloads, the only thing they're going to do is rise. As the numbers get bigger, it just gets more difficult for the officers to supervise," Arthur Penny, the chief of that office, told me. "Our concern is always if they are overwhelmed - if they don't have the time to be as diligent as they should be - could there be another David Renz in the wings that we'll miss? There's a real concern about that.

"People talk about doing more with less," he said. "But there's going to come a point where you're just doing less with less."