How can a probation officer have a positive impact to bring about change in an offender?
The responsibilities of probation officers are many, and most of those day-to-day responsibilities occur prior to the sentencing of a convicted offender. Those pre-sentencing responsibilities include providing reports to the judge on the offender’s background, including pertinent information on the offender’s upbringing and current family situation, as well as obvious information like prior arrests and convictions. The probation officer also is responsible for making recommendations to the judge on what he or she believes are viable options for the offender in addition to prison time, including the option of supervised probation, community service, educational options, etc. Once a convicted offender is sentenced to probation, however, the probation officer’s responsibilities include preparation of a plan for the offender’s life during the period of probation, including any employment or educational options, supervision of the offender, enforcement of any special provisions set forth by the sentencing judge, assessing particular needs of the offender, and serves as a point of contact within the criminal justice system for families of offenders experiencing difficulties or requiring information. Finally, the probation officer is responsible for setting up counseling sessions and any interactions between the offender and social service agencies that the officer deems warranted.
It is the last of these responsibilities that provide the probation officer the greatest opportunity to positively influence the direction an offender on probation takes. Probation officers – particularly those not over-burdened with caseloads that exceed their capacity for thorough execution – are positioned to make positive contributions to the development of offenders in their charge. Through careful counseling of the offenders for whom they are responsible, probation officers can most definitely influence the offender’s progression. Offenders, those who sincerely hope to avoid future interaction with the criminal justice system, presented with viable academic and professional options, combined with counseling sessions intended to address underlying causes of deviant or criminal behavior, have a reasonable chance of turning their lives around. It is the probation officer’s responsibility to ensure that those in their charge are aware of those opportunities – and, in most instances, they are not actually options, but rather are requirements of supervised release – and that the offender adheres to whatever plan is established. Admittedly, in cases involving drug or alcohol addictions, ensuring continued compliance with treatment and counseling programs is always a challenge, and, in the case of drugs, require invasive procedures to verify compliance, but that is the agreement into which offenders enter in exchange for not having to spend time in prison.
The difficulties of executing a successful probationary program are evident in the recidivism rates most states experience. Probation officers, however, can, and sometimes do, make a positive difference in the direction of the lives for which they are responsible.
Having come from the jail today after seeing a prisoner who was in crisis, I have very definite opinions about how probation officers can have a positive impact and hopefully, help a parolee who wants to change their life. First of all, understand that YOU cannot save them or even influence them all. THEY must want to change. To help them, one of the most important is for the officer to LISTEN as most of them have never had anyone truly hear them. That means truly listen, not be thinking of what you want to say next. If you aren't sure what they meant, simply explain what you heard and see if that is correct. The second thing you need to do is help them figure out what they need to do to stay out of prison. For some, an anger management class with practice and a method of recognizing their triggers with their own inner measurement scale of escalation is the necessary skill they don't have. They need to have actual methods such as deep breaths, throwing large marshmallows at a door at home, using their hands to massage their temples, etc. to de-escalate their own emotions, a foreign idea for many. So many have never had rules or if they did, they were not enforced. As many of them have conditions such as PTSD or ADHD or depression but know nothing about the condition, they need information and how these affect their behavior plus medication if that is necessary. The parolees must understand that you will not be a pushover who will allow anything. You will walk a fine line between understanding and helping the parolee and being seen as an easy mark. The firm but fair line seems to work the best especially if you ask pertinent questions and really listen, knowing that some of them will tell you anything you want to hear. The trick is to know which is which. A big problem is that most of the time, a probation officer has way too many people to supervise and too much paperwork for every person which creates a shortage of time. I can hear that you want to make a difference; know that many of the people you will supervise have never had anyone who cared about them as a person. Just be careful not to be their buddy and not to burn yourself out as this is one job which is not a 9 to 5 job. Good luck.