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Remarks of Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brent Cohen at the American Probation and Parole Association 48th Annual Training Institute, New York, NY
Thank you, and good morning. It’s a privilege to share the stage with Alix [McLearan]. Alix and the National Institute of Corrections have been amazing partners in our shared work to support community corrections agencies. It’s great to see you, Alix.
I want to thank Veronica [Cunningham], Joshua [Nelson] and the outstanding leadership and staff of the American Probation and Parole Association. I’m grateful for the opportunity to join them today, and thankful for the vision and direction they provide to community corrections professionals across the country.
I bring greetings from Amy Solomon, the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs. Assistant Attorney General Solomon would have loved to be here today but had a prior commitment. She has spent her entire career working to support people in transition from the justice system back into their communities. We talk daily about the critical role that all of you play in keeping communities safe and expanding opportunity. You have a huge champion in Assistant Attorney General Solomon, and the strongest support from all of us at OJP.
It's an honor for me to join you all today, because the issues you all are discussing at this conference are the same issues that have animated much of my own career. In fact, this event is a homecoming of sorts for me. Well before I came to OJP, I had the great privilege of working at the New York City Department of Probation, directing their legislative and government affairs operations. It was, without question, one of the most rewarding periods of my professional life, and I’d like to talk about that experience just a moment, because the work we were able to do at New York City Probation really underscores the themes of collaboration and partnership you’re bringing to life here.
I was part of the Commissioner’s executive team, and we were charged with the rather ambitious task of changing the culture of probation in the city, and of improving the relationship between the department and the community.
Until that time the Department was a good department. Well-run. Professional. Strong leadership and strong staff. But, probation had been a relatively simple process. The probation officer would call a person into the court-based office and ask about potential violations. Have you been arrested? Have you moved? Have you used drugs? People on probation weren’t allowed to bring along any family members – no parents or children – no one from their support network. It was just a compliance check. And this all happened during working hours, the hours when someone trying to make it back into the workforce could least afford to appear.
Probation was largely a monitoring and surveillance function. It was about catching people doing something wrong. And, with tens of thousands of people on probation in the City, with high caseloads and not enough staff or resources, it was difficult to do much else. But, we didn’t want probation to only catch people doing wrong; probation shouldn’t be just a tripwire for revocation and incarceration. It should be a doorway to opportunity, a path to success; we wanted our department to help people to do well.
So, we did a few key things. First, we built upon work that had started before we got there to move people who posed a low-risk to the community – and who were doing well in their lives – out of active supervision. This is an approach that is supported by research; unnecessary intervention from probation when someone is doing well can have a negative impact rather than a positive impact. And, by moving people off of a probation officer’s caseload, we could focus our most precious resource – our probation officers – on those clients who needed the most attention, assistance and supervision.
Second, we fought for more resources. Probation had been an often overlooked agency, so when the mayor announced the Young Men’s Initiative, which saw an influx of millions of dollars in philanthropic funding to be matched by city funding, nobody saw probation as a likely recipient. But, we made the case that people on probation needed opportunities to be successful and that the probation department was uniquely positioned to meet those needs. As a result, we received some of the YMI money, which we used to enter into contracts with service providers across the city to specifically serve our clients.
We also created something called the Neighborhood Opportunity Network, or NeON. NeON was essentially a reimagining of probation. One of the first things we did was to map where the largest number of people on probation were. We wanted to know where they lived, the conditions they confronted every day and – most importantly – the resources and strengths in their communities.
Once we mapped out where our audience was, we went to those communities. I remember driving through New York City traffic, meeting with local officials and community members in Brownsville, up around 125th Street in Harlem, the South Bronx and other neighborhoods across the city. We were working to see how we could co-locate probation services in those communities.
We didn’t always get a warm reception. Sometimes it was very clear that we weren’t wanted there. But we kept at it, trying to win their trust. We talked about how we were looking to change the culture of our agency and change the relationship that we had with our clients and the communities that we served. Eventually, we earned some preliminary support, but we knew that the support was fragile and it would be up to our staff to deliver on our rhetoric to keep that support.
And our staff delivered.
We co-located small probation offices, often in multi-service centers or nonprofit organizations, without large “Probation” signs outside. Because of where we co-located, our probation officers could literally walk clients down the hallway and do a warm handoff or referral to community organizations, where they could get job training or educational opportunities. We extended our hours so that people could come after school or work. We held backpack drives and health fairs that were open to the community. In other words, we made an all-out effort to help people do well and be an asset to the overall community. We had a motto: “Do no harm. Do more good. Do it in the community.”
We eventually found a presence in a dozen communities, and I’m proud that these actions changed how people in those areas saw the probation department. And, I believe, it changed how probation officers viewed their jobs. Interactions improved between officers and individuals on probation, and our connections with the communities were strengthened, which yielded really positive downstream benefits.
One such benefit is that we formed some amazing – and sometimes surprising – partnerships. One great example was a music writing workshop we established with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute. People we worked with got to compose and perform with professional musicians. Now, not every community has access to a world-renowned arts venue, but the fact that an institution as iconic as Carnegie Hall was willing to extend its resources is a sign that organizations are willing to jump in and offer their support.
I believe, fully and deeply, that what we were able to achieve here in New York was not an anomaly. In fact, I know it’s not because I’ve seen it happen – we’ve all seen it happen – in other communities. And now that I’m at a different vantage point, working with a federal agency that supports some of these efforts, I get an even better perspective of the great work being done in neighborhoods across the country.
One of our top priorities at the Office of Justice Programs is finding the right way to support people who come into the justice system. Our goal is to keep communities safe, ensure accountability and position people to achieve success. And we believe, as we did here in New York, that the way to do that most effectively is by keeping people connected to their communities and by relying on evidence-informed practices.
We have a program, managed by our Bureau of Justice Assistance, called Smart Supervision. Smart Supervision models this community-based, person-centered, evidence-informed approach. It focuses on developing the strengths of those being served, and public safety, equity and well-being are all equal goals.
Smart Supervision grants are meant to improve supervision outcomes and transform the role that probation officers play in supporting positive change. Grantees are integrating approaches like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and motivational interviewing. The goal is to move beyond an exclusive focus on the conditions of probation and to look instead at client strengths and needs and encourage engagement between probation officers and clients.
These programs are creating caseloads that tailor services to those being served. One great example is the High-Risk Domestic Violence Court in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. This is a collaboration between probation and law enforcement, the courts, victim service agencies and community groups. The program provides trauma-informed behavioral interventions for defendants, as well as resources for victims.
Smart Supervision programs are leveraging community assets to meet individual needs and promote success. Grantees are building partnerships between community corrections agencies and community-based organizations. For instance, the Missouri Department of Corrections is integrating Regional Behavioral Health Specialists to serve as a resource for probation and parole officers. They oversee mental health programming for people under supervision, address treatment and referral issues and facilitate continuity of care for people coming out of DOC facilities. This is a great example of a partnership that tackles some of the very difficult and complex behavioral health challenges that so many of you see every day.
These are just a couple of examples of how we’re working to help jurisdictions expand their base of support for community supervision activities. And I’m really pleased to share that, in the coming days, we’ll be making six additional awards under this program. More than $4.2 million will help state and local jurisdictions implement a range of evidence-based supervision practices. Grants will help improve responses to substance use, leverage technology in case management and resumé building, support reintegration in a tribal community and provide opportunities for people in rural and low-income areas. These new awards will build on the impressive momentum generated by previous Smart Supervision grants.
Another major effort – and one we’re really excited about – is BJA’s Community Supervision Resource Center. We’ll be launching this initiative in the next few weeks. The Center for Effective Public Policy is leading this effort in partnership with the APPA, along with other national organizations. The goal here is to help pretrial, probation and parole agencies identify where they are on the continuum of best practices and to work with them to take steps to advance along that continuum.
There will be a library of research products and policy and practice guides. The Resource Center will offer webinars and trainings from experts in the field, covering topics ranging from evidence-based practices to officer safety and wellness. We’ll provide on-site and virtual technical assistance. The focus will be not just on accountability, but on providing pathways to success and improving community safety and well-being. Our hope is that the resource center will be a vital resource for community supervision agencies across the country and that it will help strengthen connections with the communities you all serve.
I’ll add that this work will involve people who have had direct experience with the community supervision system – individuals who’ve been on probation and parole who bring their unique perspectives and expertise to the project. Throughout my career, I’ve worked closely with – and my work has been informed by – people who were formerly incarcerated and justice-involved, and I’ve found that those with lived experience often bring some of the deepest insights and best ideas to this work. I am encouraged to see the field increasingly recognize the value of having directly impacted people at the decision-making table and in the conversations that precede the decisions. At OJP, we’re engaging directly impacted leaders in our reentry work, in our community violence intervention efforts, in our work with youth and with crime victims – and our programs are stronger for it. I encourage all of you to do the same.
I want to end with just a word of appreciation and encouragement. We recognize at OJP that the work you do as community corrections professionals can be critical to helping people successfully exit the justice system and achieve positive life outcomes, while advancing public safety.
We also know it’s challenging. You meet people at a crossroads, when their lives could take a turn in any direction. Some people need more attention and intervention from you and others need less. Your decisions and actions will help determine the path they will follow. You’re working to satisfy many demands – those of accountability and safety and the higher mandates of equity and individual dignity. This is a job that requires unusually high levels of commitment and resolve.
But rest assured that it’s all worth it. What you do yields positive and lasting change, for the people you work with and the communities you serve. Your work makes a difference, and I’m proud to have worked with professionals like you throughout my career – and to be able to continue supporting you at the Department of Justice.
It's now a great pleasure to introduce the next session of today’s program, which will be facilitated by my colleague, Judge Karen Friedman.
Judge Friedman is the Director of Criminal Justice Innovation, Development and Engagement in our Bureau of Justice Assistance. Before joining BJA, she served for over 20 years in the Maryland Judiciary, serving at every level of trial court in Baltimore, including the Baltimore City Circuit Court, the highest trial court in the state.
Judge Friedman also led Baltimore’s drug treatment court and sat on the Equal Justice Commission’s sentencing subcommittee. Her work as a judge was built around innovative approaches to sentencing and probation, and she believes deeply in the power of community corrections professionals to shape and improve lives.
She’ll be leading what I know will be an inspiring conversation with Quawntay “Bosco” Adams.
I’ll leave it to Judge Friedman to introduce Mr. Adams and set the stage for the conversation. So, please welcome the Honorable Judge Karen Friedman.