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Innovation in Community Corrections and Probation Officers' Fears of Being Sued: Implementing Neighborhood-Based Supervision in Spokane, Washington

NCJ Number
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice Volume: 25 Issue: 4 Dated: November 2009 Pages: 364-383
Date Published
November 2009
20 pages

In-depth interviews with 44 field probation officers in eastern Washington State were used to determine whether probation officers' fears of being sued and their trust in their organizations influenced their commitment to engage in innovative interactions as brokers between offenders and their employers, family members, and community stakeholders.


Given the liability context in which Washington State probation officers function, it was not surprising to find that among all officers in the sample, fears about being sued were driven by large caseloads and questionable liability protections. In 1961, the Washington State Legislature waived its right to sovereign immunity. The law's effect was a complete waiving of State immunity from lawsuits. The cumulative effect of subsequent relevant court decisions was to increase officers' legal obligations to control the offender while substantially narrowing officers' immunity from lawsuits. By linking officer immunity to compliance with agency directives, the court also indirectly elevated the agency's role in field-based offender management while curtailing the broad discretion that had been the hallmark of parole and probation officers. Given this trend, it was to be expected that officer's fears of being sued and the likelihood of receiving support from the Department of Corrections permeated their concerns, but not necessarily the work, of both neighborhood-based supervision (NBS) officers and officers in more traditional field-based probation offices (TRD) in Spokane, WA. These concerns, however, did not affect how officers implemented a new program, suggesting that innovation was not impaired by liability concerns. Officers apparently gave little consideration to being held liable for their risk-taking related to working with community members and managing offender behavior; for example, officers were apparently more willing to work and be flexible with offenders in situations in which the offender, his/her family members, and community members were willing participants in pursuing case-management objectives. 1 table and 26 references

Date Published: November 1, 2009