High intensity

Jeff, a fellow you would not want to arm wrestle.

Jeff is a fellow you would not want to arm wrestle. (The object in his hand is a remote controller. Ironic.))

He graduated from high school in North Platte, NE., a railroad town about half between Denver and Omaha. Rumor has it that you didn’t mess with him as a teenager. He got his college degree at UNL and then took a job with the Nebraska Department of Corrections working at the Nebraska Center for Women in York, Nebraska. After that, a stint at the Omaha Correctional Center followed, and then on to manage “death row” for Nebraska’s prisons. (Can you imagine spending your day on “death row”?)

Jeff came to the US Probation Office at our court* with great experience working with, talking to and understanding hard-core offenders of all types. After working as a USPO for 14 years, Jeff is doing “high intensity” supervision. That is, he supervises the toughest of offenders who are released from federal prison and thereafter may be doing 5, 10 or more years on post-prison supervision. Jeff knows what it is like to supervise an offender who killed a man while on supervision with one mighty punch, perhaps in self-defense.

High intensity supervision is dangerous both to the USPO and to the offender. If you don’t believe me, consider the following. Before USPOs were allowed to carry guns, USPO Thomas Eric Gahl was shot three times with a shotgun and killed when he entered an offender’s home who had recently been released from prison. The man was suspected of taking drugs while suffering from mental illness. The offender fled, killed two other people, engaged in several other kidnappings and then committed suicide. See here for more. The Federal Courts Improvement Act of 1996, Title I., Sec. 101 (October 19, 1996) amended federal law (18 U.S.C. § 3603(9) to provide federal statutory authority for United States pretrial and probation officers to carry firearms.

Officer Gahl had served with the United States Probation Office for the Southern District of Indiana for 11½ years. He had previously served with the Indiana Department of Correction, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and was a US Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War. Officer Gahl was survived by his wife, two young sons, brother and mother.

Officer Gahl had served with the United States Probation Office for the Southern District of Indiana for 11½ years. He had previously served with the Indiana Department of Correction, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and was a US Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War. Officer Gahl was survived by his wife, two young sons, brother and mother.

The offenders who are subject to frequent contact with high intensity supervisors are marked as the toughest to supervise and those offenders know about and often resent the increased supervision. The supervision takes the officer out into roughest places and neighborhoods at all times of the night and day to have contact with the offender. A high intensity supervisor cannot “talk-the-talk” with these offenders, he or she must have the unique ability to “walk-the-walk” when the pressure is really on. Those interactions can be tense and fraught with an almost palpable smell of violence. The officer is often alone.

While men and women like Jeff have arrest and other limited law enforcement powers** and carry guns, their mindsets are (or should be) completely different than that of a cop. Their job is to help the offender become productive. And that’s what makes their jobs so awfully hard. I have known Jeff for a long time now. He is the happiest when one of his offenders completes supervision successfully. He does not enjoy “bagging” an offender. On the other hand, Jeff is tough. He is not afraid to get very aggressive if public safety and the law requires it.

Late at night, an employee of the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska, a USPO, is probably risking his or her life to do good both for the public and offenders who most of society have written off long ago. In Nebraska, that person might be a powerfully built but inwardly caring guy whose name is Jeff. I like the idea of probation officer as humanist. Jeff is such a person.


*US Probation Officers are employees of the judiciary. Each United States Probation Office is a unit of the United States District Court for a particular district and is subject to control by the judges of that court. See here for our United States Probation Office.

**U.S. Probation Officers may with the approval of the court conduct warrantless searches of offenders and their property. The U.S. Supreme Court (Griffin v. Wisconsin, 483 U.S. 868 (1987) (supervision of probationers is a “special need” of the State that may justify departures from the usual warrant and probable cause requirements. Supervision is necessary to ensure that probation restrictions are in fact observed, that the probation serves as a genuine rehabilitation period, and that the community is not harmed by the probationer’s being at large) and several federal courts have held that warrantless searches are permitted under certain circumstances. See also 18 U.S.C. §§ 3563(b)(23) and 3583(d). They have authority to make arrests as well. 18 U.S.C. § 3606(b)(23) and 18 U.S. Code § 3583(b).


Photo credit:QuotesEverlasting per Creative Commons license.

Photo credit: QuotesEverlasting per Creative Commons license.

Yesterday afternoon, I drove to Omaha to attend the second annual graduation ceremony for offenders under supervision who had successfully completed the intensive Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT) program utilized by the Supervision Unit of our superb United States Probation office.  It was a heart-warming experience and, more importantly, a hopeful one.

What is MRT and why does US Probation use it? In answer to that question, consider the following:

*I detest the name “Moral Reconation Therapy” because it sounds creepy and because it is based on a word that is not typically used in modern parlance. The word “conation” is an archaic term for the word “ego” as that term is used in structural models of the mind. “Reconation” means, very roughly, to “reboot” the “ego.”

*Facilitated by specially trained US Probation Officers, MRT is utilized in a group setting over 18 to 20 weeks. Offenders are helped to recognize and more appropriately deal with the moral dimensions of daily living through very practical step-by-step aids. More specifically, MRT seeks to move offenders from a lower, hedonistic level of moral reasoning (pleasure vs. pain) to a higher level where social rules and other people become important.

*MRT is based on the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) approach to mental health treatment. CBT (1) focuses on specific problems of daily living and (2) is “action oriented” in the sense that the therapist assists the client in selecting specific strategies to address those specific problems. MRT then is properly seen as a branch of the more widely known and accepted CBT tree.

*Because MRT focuses on morality as an expression of free will, and because MRT is not strictly behavioral in orientation, one need not fear that the treatment is a “Clock Work Orange” approach to dealing with offenders.

*There is good evidence that MRT has a small but statistically significant relationship  to lowered rates of recidivism.

*MRT is only small part of the overall supervision of offenders, but it is an important one.

Although US Probation has been using MRT for some time, this was only the second “graduation” ceremony. Last year, the coordinator of the MRT program decided that completion of MRT justified a formal recognition of the offenders’ achievement. That ceremony was successful, and so it was duplicated again this year.

The ceremony was held in one of our stately courtrooms in the beautiful Hruska Courthouse in Omaha. Our Chief Judge, Laurie Smith Camp, spoke to the graduates and handed a small token of appreciation to the graduates as each one was formally and individually recognized (and applauded).  Two of the graduates spoke. Quite incidentally, I had sentenced those two. Their talks were inspiring. Family, friends, and even prosecutors, filled up the courtroom and then shared refreshments afterwards. I certainly hope these graduation ceremonies become woven into the fabric of the life of our court. They are good for the soul.

One last observation is in order. If we are to reduce the length of prison sentences so as to reduce costs, we must also increase, and substantially so, our ability to supervise offenders when they get out of prison. Providing quality supervision that protects the public requires a lot of time and hard work. That our US Probation Office conducts MRT groups throughout the year for offenders in Omaha, Lincoln and Grand Island in addition to performing the more traditional law-enforcement functions of supervision, exemplifies a smart strategy that can reduce recidivism. FYI to Congress: Supervision that protects the public can’t be done on the cheap, particularly if it is an alternative to incarceration.



Freddie insisted that there be no hoopla. So, he came to my chambers, took the oath and started work as US Probation Officer, but not before I insisted on a photo.

Freddie insisted that there be no hoopla. So, he came to my chambers, took the oath and started work as US Probation Officer, but not before I insisted on a photo.

Yesterday, I swore Freddie in as a United State Probation Officer for the District of Nebraska. He previously spent 17 years as United States Pretrial Service Officer for the District of Nebraska. Before that, when he was a little kid, he was my neighbor in Lexington along with his three brothers.* He is one year younger than my daughter Marne and one year older than my daughter Lisa. The kids were good friends.

If I disclosed what I know about the four hellions–meaning Freddie and his brothers–there is a good possibility that Freddie would have to give up his federal law enforcement credentials, surrender his service weapon and then enroll in the witness protection program. But, I won’t.

Instead, I will happily watch as he takes on the especially difficult responsibility of supervising felony offenders in a large part of the Third District of Nebraska. He has had that territory as a Pretrial Officer, so the transition, part of our planned consolidation of Pretrial and Probation, will be smooth. That said, the job is daunting. Freddie will look after offenders on supervised release in an area compromising nearly 40,000 square miles and covering two times zones. Freddie is a strong, tough, supremely fair, no-nonsense, very smart and extraordinarily experienced young man who is unusually well-suited to handling difficult people in potentially dangerous situations in remote places and without backup. There aren’t many US Probation Officers who face the challenges that will confront Freddie.

Freddie's territory.

Freddie’s territory.

By the way, Freddie hates attention and he hates being called “Freddie.” He goes by “Fred” except when I think or write about him. In my thoughts, Fred will always be Freddie. He will just have to get over my use of the diminutive. After all, it’s better than Fredericka! Now, there’s  an idea . . . .

Anyway, be safe Freddie.


*Freddie’s parents are saints. Only saints could have dealt with those four boys.

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