III. Five Futures For Probation and Parole

(1) Muddling Along

Dangerous opportunities need not be embraced, and risk-taking is not always rewarded. Though optimism was in the air when this group met in December 1998, it might dissipate by summer, or by the millennium. Where probation and parole are demoralized and confused, where they work without clear purpose, under-resourced and lacking political support, uncertain of who the client is but focused on individual offenders, the future might look very much like the recent past. At first, we labeled this possibility the "shut-down future"--caseloads increasing to 500:1 and beyond, expectations falling to match, and resources finally vanishing. We have been present, as have many others, when budget officials ask whether anything the public values would be lost if the probation or the parole budget were zeroed out. Those are dispiriting moments for anyone who appreciates the public's need for effective community supervision of offenders. But it almost never happens. Extinction is not a likely future for probation and parole or their equivalents by other names: It is unacceptable to do nothing, and be seen doing nothing, when a convicted offender comes before a court for sentencing. "Probation" is undeniably useful to judges needing formal dispositions for offenders who are not to be fined or imprisoned; and post-confinement supervision has appeal for politically accountable officials, who are unlikely to commit to a public safety policy built on the idea that offenders emerge from prison sufficiently "corrected" to be dumped, unsupervised, in our midst.

So, "muddling along" is certainly possible. Of the current conditions which favor this future, the most important may be the difficulty leaders of the profession have agreeing on what the public would value, which community corrections is prepared to "own." A muddle is inescapable when the answer is any and all of: enforcing court orders, holding offenders accountable, reducing recidivism during the term of supervision, permanent reformation of offenders, creating or maintaining public safety, punishment, restitution, restoration of victims, restoration of community, crime prevention, fear reduction, harm reduction, embodying community values, keeping offenders drug free, and involving individual victims in correctional decisionmaking. The muddle is not without its appeal--to be accountable for everything is to be free of clear responsibility for anything. In addition, the future is tethered to the past by perverse but comfortable performance measures and accountability systems:

We have created a comfort level for ourselves, and particularly for our employees in leading them to seeing "accountability" as "accounting." We … tout the financial collection that probation officers do, how many contacts they have with probationers, how many drug tests we run each year… and how well they do meeting the supervision standards.… [W]e want to make our work count more, but the legislature wants us to continue counting "contacts" we're making in the field, because this is what has defined our role.

Police agencies face a similar problem, in trying to shift from reactive patrol to community-oriented problem solving: For decades, police were content (even eager) to be accountable for arrests rather than for safety and for swift response to crime scenes rather than for prevention of crime, and they now find the political environment slow to abandon the familiar measures of performance.

To escape a "muddling along" future, community corrections would need a coherent strategy for producing something valued by the public at large, something it has the authority and resources to produce, or which can be brought within its capacity by combination with others--by combination with other government agencies, or with "the community," or with both.

(2) Principled Minimalism

This future is a stark but logical response to the "muddle." It would result from rejecting responsibility for advancing public safety, or restoring the community, or attending effectively to victims, or anything else so ambitious. To reduce the risk of failure, probation and parole would take responsibility for one easily measured (but possibly valuable) product, or take responsibility only for "catching backsliders" and delivering them to custody, or take no responsibility at all:

Years ago, Norval Morris said … that judges, by and large, when they placed somebody on probation, they never wanted to see the person again. In the early days, probation was a "second chance." So no one expected anything. Our problem is that once we professionalized, we wanted to take probation and turn it into reality--and we blew it. But as a symbol of a community's response to give people another chance … we're a success.

It was clear in the conversation, however, that minimalism need not be cynical, and the most principled course might be to specify a single objective for community corrections--preferably an achievable one which has a chance of creating public value--in order to limit as well as focus probation and parole responsibilities. A healthy skepticism about the operational capacity of probation and parole agencies, together with a conviction that unreformed offenders commit crimes and that substance abusing probationers and parolees are unreformed in exactly this way, led one participant to this declaration of what we have label "principled minimalism:"

I think we have to make up our minds that, as a first order of business, persons under supervision in the community have to be sober, and we have to take action to help them remain sober. Now what does that mean? That means we have to, ourselves, understand sobriety and how to achieve it, how to teach it, how to monitor it.… [So we can't be] doing all these good things--taking graffiti off the walls, planting neighborhood gardens--when at night [the offenders] are going out and getting high. We have to understand sobriety, we have to teach them how to stay sober, and we have to be relentless about it because it's like weeds in the garden. It will grow back the minute you turn your face. [It's] a humungous undertaking, not least of all [because] we have to resolve our staff's own ambivalence about drug and alcohol use.

The most elegant variation on principled minimalism was this: probation and parole would get out of the business of supervising offenders, but would give them vouchers for the purchase of services which might be useful to them in going straight and staying sober. Substantial savings would surely flow from reducing to zero the budget for personnel to supervise individual offenders, and those savings could be re-directed to the purchase of services by and for offenders who believe they need them: drug treatment, education, employment assistance, and the like. Any funds left over could be re-budgeted, for primary prevention in the communities from which future offenders are likely to come--programs ranging from Head Start, to teen pregnancy prevention, to community policing. The duration of probation or parole would be brief, and the only grounds for revocation would be a new crime, or behavior that creates substantial likelihood of a new crime.

This future leaves no room for innovation in supervision techniques, or for probation and parole agents to "co-produce" public safety with naturally-occurring guardians of the communities in which the offenders are found. It flows from a bleak assessment of community corrections' operational capacity, but it has the virtue of clarity and, arguably, the value of a deliverable service--one for which probation and parole can be and would be willing to be held accountable.

There are good reasons to doubt this is the likely future of community corrections: Its appeal for the larger community--the community fearful of unsupervised offenders--seems too weak to displace even "muddling along." While other program providers are a constituency, and would be attracted by a reallocation to them of the funds now supporting probation and parole personnel, it might be hard for them to believe that the reallocation of any liberated funds would be rational, or that, in a rational reallocation of funds, crime prevention programs would be the winners.

(3) Enforcing Court Orders

The future of community corrections might be left to sentencing courts to define--with or without input from community corrections. This future would be the sum of activities undertaken to enforce courts' probation orders (and, in some jurisdictions, court-specified terms of post-confinement supervision). Particularly in jurisdictions where probation is an arm of the court, housed within the judicial branch, this appears a likely way for the future to be defined. But because court orders can be as various as the characteristics and circumstances of offenders coming before judges for sentencing, the specifics of this future are unknowable--unless courts impose generic orders, which many do. But generic supervision orders--community supervision without court specification of means and objectives in the particular case--make uncertainty about purpose, and confusion of ends with means, inescapable.

The most promising variation on the "court ordered" future emerged from a realization that probation agencies might do much more with the opportunities they have to specify the court's purpose and its choice of the means of supervision in each case. Control over the content of supervision orders might be shared with the court in such a way that the courts' authority is bent to the purpose of re-engineering community corrections, while the greater operational capacity in probation (which should result) is put at the courts' disposal. Seen this way, a "court-ordered" future is unspecified only until community corrections and the courts come to an agreeable vision of it. But sentencing courts are understandably focused on individual offenders, while probation and parole agencies must engage many others as well, if they are to be effective in advancing public safety, attending to victims, or restoring communities. And the reality in many courts is that the sentencing is, in effect, done by the prosecutor or the prosecuting and defense attorney together. These are all points of difficulty, but not insurmountable difficulty for the strategic use of court orders to force a shift of focus and objectives in community corrections agencies.

Before moving to the next possible future, a word of caution needs to be added about this one. The plain vanilla future of "enforcing court orders" is a dangerous one, if the courts' supervision orders are not so much meant to be enforced as to shield the court from criticism--criticism for having done nothing to punish the offender, to hold him accountable, to reform him, to restore the victim he has wronged or the community he has disrupted, or otherwise use its sentencing authority for public benefit. Under those circumstances, it is the order that has value--not its enforcement--and sufficient resources would not be likely to flow to community corrections for the supervision of offenders to be effective. And neither the courts nor the public would be likely to hold community corrections harmless when things go wrong. So, if probation is passive in a future defined by enforcement of court orders, it may in the end be hard to distinguish it from "muddling along."

(4) Community Justice and Restorative Justice

"Community justice" proved hard to define in this conversation, and we are therefor cautious to suggest it as defining a possible future for probation and parole. Part of our unease arises from a sense that both words--"community" and "justice"--refer to things people almost universally say they want, but they do not all want the same things. Still, in the conversation, there were repeated references to a future in which probation and parole draw their authority and their resources (including the political resources from which appropriations flow) from the community--not from the court. There is much to recommend this view.

First, although offenders' future behavior might be shaped by community corrections agents directly, greater powers to control and socialize offenders are found in their families, schools, labor markets, and networks of naturally-occurring guardians over them, their potential victims, and the places where they come together. To create value for the public, then, probation and parole need to invoke these forces, support them, and act in concert with them when they are available to help enforce court orders, maintain public safety, or achieve any other purpose community corrections "owns."

Second, all of the resources probation and parole require, if they are to achieve any purpose at all, flow in the end from the communities in which offenders under their supervision are found. Financial resources are made available or not through a political process; a failure to produce something of value to the public assures reduced financial support in the appropriations process. But money is of marginal utility at best, if authority and legitimacy are lacking--and while community corrections agencies get their formal authority from law and from the courts, their authority to command offenders' compliance with court orders, and their authority to engage the informal agents of social control in that effort, flow directly from the community:

The building of community is important for community corrections agencies to attend to, but it is, at the same time, an end in itself, an instrument for advancing public safety, and a source of authority to do that. [I]t is important to attend to each dimension.

The "community justice" future would be constructed from a direct exchange relationship, or a set of them, between communities on the one hand, and probation and parole on the other. The participants in this conversation placed quite a bit of emphasis on the value of community service projects as a window into this future--probation and parole projects in which offenders visibly and directly produce things the larger community wants, such as gardens, graffiti-free neighborhoods, less dangerous alleys, habitable housing for the homeless. There was general agreement that compelling offenders to labor for the good of the communities they have wronged can punish and restore at the same time, and provides openings for more complex cooperation between community corrections agencies and the public they depend on for authority and resources. Projects of this kind have also helped build stronger communities, and have carved channels into the labor market for the offenders engaged in them--which suggested to some participants that imposing and enforcing community service obligations has public safety value as well.

If community service by offenders is an important example, and perhaps a useful starting point for a future of "community justice," it is a relatively small part of the final product. The larger ambition of the "community justice" being pursued by some participants is "restorative justice." In a restorative justice future, probation and parole supervision of an offender would still aim for his rehabilitation and his accountability to the court, but they focus equally on restoring his victims' lives, and on restoring his relationships with them and with the community of which he remains a part or to which he will surely return.

Both "community justice" and "restorative justice" require a new or renewed alignment of probation and parole with the informal institutions of social control and social cohesion. In each, the relationship of an offender to his victim and to his community is the engine of value creation, not the offender's relationship to the court or the court order. Both are grounded in conviction that the criminal justice system is an insufficient response to crime, to the harm it causes, and to the future threats to public safety presented by the offenders enmeshed in it.

We find it difficult to gauge the likelihood of these futures. But there is no denying their power to capture the imagination of some of today's community corrections leaders.

Community Justice:

I want to talk about partnership with the community and how that [contributes to] public safety. We have a monthly meeting in one of our neighborhoods that started with the police and the probation department--about six police officers who have community policing responsibilities in this neighborhood and [the same number] of probation officers. They opened this meeting up … and now the entire community is involved. And where there's maybe nine professionals around that table, there's probably at an average meeting 40, 45 citizens from that community…. [Their neighborhood] is as tough as any neighborhood in any city you want to deal with--gang-infested, drugs, prostitution, the whole thing--and they identify every month the four worst spots…. [The] first part of the meeting is about the police and probation responses--what they've done in the last month with hot spots identified the month before: "What we've done, we've closed down that crack house, or we've told these people to turn down their radios for the tenth time and the next time we're taking the damn radio … or that gang's not going to be allowed anymore to park their damn cars across the sidewalk…. The whole neighborhood's coming together [to get these things done]….

Restorative Justice:

We hired a guy [who] did time as a kid and then he went into the military and retired as a Sergeant Major. He has no training in social work or probation, right? So he's caught up in the new lingo about repairing harm, getting the victim paid back, getting the community back, and here's how he handles his day: He goes to where Habitat for Humanity's got two or three houses going all the time, … and he's got four, five, six probation guys on each site. Then he goes downtown and cuts a deal with the lady who runs the downtown [association]--that the guys will do downtown clean-up projects. Two weeks ago, we had a bunch of [probationers] putting Christmas tree lights up under [her] supervision, right? Then he goes over to the domestic violence group who want a safe house, and they're going to put together a safe house paid for by offenders' fees and built by the offenders themselves. So what he does during his day is he visits with the people who are stakeholders in each project. Now, to me, in terms of supervision, that's the highest form of supervision. It's not his relationship with these probation guys on the crews, it's the relationship between these naturally-occurring forces, the community people, and these guys performing the work. And, even if this doesn't have long-term effect on these offenders, the people involved in this are getting a sense that, "Hey, there's some good coming from the money that we've been putting into this [community corrections agency] that we used to know nothing about…. We never had these guys come out before and work alongside of us; everything was done around the government offices…." Let me put it this way, if the public knew that when you commit some wrongdoing, you're held accountable in constructive ways and you've got to earn your way back through these kinds of good works, … we wouldn't be in the rut that we're in right now with the public….

Allowing for a "Meld" Before specifying the final possible future for community corrections, we should identify an important variation on "muddling along"--a meld of selected features of the muddle into a more coherent whole:

I'd like to make the case for modified muddle. Because, I was thinking: we all know that community policing is practiced at varying degrees of efficacy. But where it's really practiced well, they didn't walk away from their duties to enforce the law. They realized that they had to get into problem solving [but] if you look at really good community policing, when community police officers hear about a burglary, they immediately deal with [the] responsibility they have of doing something about the burglary. But during the rest of [the] day, they spend their time problem-solving at the community level. And I think the same could and should be the case [in probation and parole] because I tell you we cannot walk away from enforcement of the court order…. The question becomes, [as in] community policing, how do you get the community into it, how do you maintain your basic duties and get into doing some other things that contribute to public safety? We have going for us that a lot of us know neighborhoods, we know communities, we know generations of offenders. We're in a pretty good position to promote partnerships that can rally around the larger issue of public safety while maintaining the responsibility of enforcement. So, it's enforcement plus public safety [and] it's difficult to be responsive to the community if we have probationers getting high and not working, or kids that are not in school, or if we're not collecting restitution.

(5) Public Safety

The fifth possible future for community corrections is framed by the following definition of "public safety": public safety is the condition found in a place where persons are free from attack or theft and know it. This idea of public safety is that it is something different from a lower crime rate: we do not, after all, enjoy public safety when there are no robbery complaints but we are locked in our homes while adolescents prowl the area looking in vain for folks to rob. This idea of public safety is that it is something different from offenders' compliance with court orders: we do not enjoy public safety when adolescents convicted or paroled last month are counted in attendance at anger management programs, but no one knows they are stockpiling weapons at home. This idea of public safety is that it exists where naturally-occurring guardians are in protective relationships with offenders under supervision, with their potential victims and with the places they are likely to come together. The idea is that public safety is a local, not a statistical phenomenon, and that it is found when and where there exist generally-agreed rules of behavior, a shared appreciation that rule-breaking will be punished, and a further appreciation that playing by the rules will be rewarded. This is our definition of public safety, but participants in this conversation were for the most part familiar with it from articles distributed before the meeting (Rhine and Paparozzi, 1999).

With "public safety" understood this way, a future in which the production and maintenance of public safety is the core purpose of community corrections would require very substantial re-engineering of most probation and parole agencies. (Smith and Dickey, 1998) Place would replace offender as the focus of agency activity; and the agencies would be held accountable for the conditions of places, not the number of offender contacts, the number of successful urine screens, or the number of employment program referrals. Probation and parole would have to be concerned that the lessons of responsibility and accountability are convincingly conveyed to offenders under their supervision--and to the offenders' peers who are not. But community corrections would have to acknowledge that this is principally the task of parents, neighbors, schools, churches, employers, and other informal agents of social control, in the places where the offenders are found. We have on another occasion summarized the implications this view of public safety has for probation and parole:

  1. The nature and character of an offender's supervision should be directly related to and tailored to the gravity of harm he might cause and the likelihood of its occurring without supervision;

  2. The more grave the harm he might cause, the more active must be the supervision when he is not in prison;

  3. Staff need a configuration of legal authority and resources that permits swift, flexible tailoring of correctional measures to changes in the circumstances of offenders and of the conditions in which they are found;

  4. Active supervision should aim to reduce offenders' anonymity, for offenders can hide from the naturally-occurring agents of social control as well as from probation and parole agents;

  5. Active supervision requires broad engagement with offenders in the settings, in which they are found, as well as the operational capacity to secure their stable housing, to require their continuing engagement in the labor market (and their receipt of legitimate income), and to surround them with supportive networks of family, neighbors and others; and

  6. Active supervision invokes the naturally-occurring agents of social control found in even the most crime-ridden neighborhoods, and therefor requires familiarity with the shifting forces operating in the lives of the offenders under supervision. (Smith and Dickey 1998: 18-21)

If the future of community corrections is the creation or maintenance of public safety, the prospects for success would surely be increased by some borrowing from "principled minimalism" and from the collaborative approaches that characterize "community justice" and "restorative justice." It is a possible future, but a daunting one. It risks failure. But its strategic virtue is obvious: by aligning their modest operational capacity with the greater operational capacity of communities, for the purpose of making places in the community safer, and by "co-owning" management of the risks posed by offenders under supervision (and by others, not currently under supervision), probation and parole have a chance of creating enough public value to secure the political and material support they require.

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