Interns Serve as ‘Eyes and Ears’ for U.S. District Court

SHSU Students Valarie Lott (l)and Kathy Rios (r) recently completed an internship at Pretrial Services in the U.S. District Court in Houston. Rios was offered a job with the agency.
SHSU Students Valarie Lott (l)and Kathy Rios (r) recently completed an internship at Pretrial Services in the U.S. District Court in Houston. Rios was offered a job with the agency.

Graduate Student Valarie Lott and Senior Kathy Rios said they wish they had roller skates to keep up with the volume and myriad of pretrial service work at U.S. District Court in Houston.

Lott and Rios just completed a semester-long internship with Pretrial Services for the Southern District of Texas, where they worked side-by-side with court personnel to investigate the background of federal criminal defendants and prepare bond reports for judges. After completing the internship, Rios was offered a job with the agency and is relocating to Brownsville.

"It was very hands-on," said Lott. "Nobody wants to sit behind a desk and push papers. I like being hands-on and being able to do things."

Considered the "eyes and ears" of federal courts, Pretrial Services investigates and supervises people charged with federal crimes. The officers work with federal defendants before their cases go to trial and help ensure that they commit no new offenses before their day in court.

Among their responsibilities are:

  • Interviewing defendants to find out about their background, including family, education, employment, finances, physical and mental health, and drug and alcohol abuse.
  • Performing criminal history records checks.
  • Interviewing people who can provide helpful information, such as family, employers and law enforcement officers.
  • Reviewing records from courts, schools, military, financial institutions and employers.
  • Preparing reports for federal judges with recommendations on bonding or detention.

The Houston office is very busy. Some days, each intern would interview two to three defendants; other days, there would be seven cases piled high on their desks. After just four weeks of training, the two interns were performing the duties of a regular pretrial services officer.

"They have been a great asset to us," said Cynthia Moreno, a U.S. Pretrial Services Officer. “Our agency is relatively small, but we stay very, very busy. There’s never a dull moment, and every day is something new. It’s a high stress job. All the interns that have come through have helped us to split the job – who’s in court and who’s doing investigations. It’s been a big help for me in the office.”

Moreno said that students from Sam Houston State University have quickly learned a multitude of tasks.

"They are open-minded, educated and they take the information in, process it and give it back to me," said Moreno. "For them to transform what I have taught them into now we’re actually doing it is a real asset to me."

Moreno said the internship is a valuable experience for the students as well. It may give them a leg-up on a federal job.

"It looks really, really good on a resume," Moreno said. "It gives them a foot in the door. At least, at the federal level, it is hard to get in."

The U.S. Pretrial Services is one of dozens of internship opportunities offered by the College of Criminal Justice in law enforcement, corrections, victim services and private security. Internship are generally offered the senior year and include a full-time, 40-hour position. Undergraduate students earn nine credit hours, while graduate students can get six hours of credit.

About 125 students a year participate in internships at the College, which can sometimes lead for a full-time career. The process is competitive, and the federal agencies are often the most coveted positions.

"Student interest in the internship program is rapidly growing," said Dr. Jim Dozier, Internship Coordinator at the College. "We work hard to place the student in a position that most favorably benefits the intern and the sponsoring agency. Internships are a terrific tool to help segway from student to criminal justice practitioner."

For Rios, the internship gave her an opportunity to meet people in the federal court system, to network in the broader criminal justice community and to get an insider’s view of the criminal justice system.

"It teaches you to work under pressure," Rios said. "They may say I need that report in two hours. It’s an experience like none other."

Rios said while professors at Sam Houston gave her a good overview of the federal criminal justice system, the internship gave her the real life experience in the trenches.

Lott said she knew little about pretrial services before getting the internship.

"The experience we got, the writing experience, the things you see and go through will mean a lot in the future," said Lott.

Lott said writing skills she learned at SHSU came in handy.

"The way I learned to write came in handy," said Lott. "You have to write a lot of reports so that other people can understand it. It is so very important."

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