I. A Moment of Vulnerability--Reasons to Worry
There was near unanimity that the greatest threat to probation and parole today is lack of clarity about purpose. This lack of clarity emerged as confusion of means with ends: is placement in drug treatment the objective, or does supervision fall short of its purpose unless treatment leads to durable sobriety, which in turn reduces recidivism? Is speedy revocation of a violator's probation a purpose (a demonstration that offenders are being held accountable), a failure of supervision, or a means to induce self-regulation in the offender? Uncertainty about purpose also led to argument about what problems the field should "own": is it safe to "own" the public safety problem when success so much depends on co-ownership of that problem by others?
Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson, in explaining why she had convened the meeting, focused everyone's attention on public safety as the inescapable, end-of-the-day purpose for investment in the community supervision of offenders:
I find it ironic … that probation has not gotten [more] attention…. [P]olitically this is the arena where public safety occurs or doesn't occur…. [H]ow can we have a conversation about public safety in this country and not talk about the … 3.9 million people on probation and parole. That's about three times the number of people behind bars.
A felt need for probation and parole supervision to advance the community's interest in public safety proved to be a persistent theme in the conversation, not least because of worries that conventional practices do little to safeguard persons and property in the communities where probationers and parolees are thick on the ground. But adopting probation and parole practices better suited to the community's interest in public safety was generally viewed as a challenge:
It's been amazing to me that when you ask your probation and parole staff to give you examples of what they do that protects the public, they're baffled … [even when] I've asked that question in promotion panels … where you're talking to seasoned officers.
These worries kept driving the group from full embrace of public safety as the responsibility of a probation or parole agency--worries about being held accountable for achieving something that is of value but is beyond their agencies' capacities.
But if advancing public safety is not the purpose, what is?
What Purpose Is Served By Probation and Parole?
Before a half-hour had passed, these worries about operational capacity and purpose were given a very sharp edge:
[T]here's a malaise in the public about our business … but even more importantly is there's a malaise in our own house, in the profession. I said to some of our folks recently, "What would you do if you sat down with your townspeople and told them about your work?" and they said to me--and this is not uncommon, by the way--"You mean, the truth?" And boy did that resonate with me, because we all know the party line and we all know the truth. And, you know what? Other people outside of our business have figured that out too.
The anecdote rang true to many around the table. Many agreed as well that, without the confidence and active collaboration of the community, where the informal agents of social control and the roots of political legitimacy are found, probation and parole will be stripped of the partners and the resources they need if their supervision of offenders is to be effective. As the conversation proceeded, it seemed obvious that, absent supervision that is effective in holding offenders accountable and in advancing public safety, the community will withhold its confidence and its collaboration.
[For some] people in probation and parole, there's a real fear about reaching out to the community, about bringing the community into their work--because [they] feel powerless and defeated, not necessarily with their day-to-day work with offenders but admitting that what they're doing is not necessarily working, and I think they're embarrassed by their inability to bring about some real change and there's a fear of looking inadequate.
The search for clarity about purpose and for confidence about operational capacity led many to explore the relationship between their probation and parole agencies and the communities they serve. Here is the first of many attempts to specify what operational capacity probation and parole need, and what they need to do with that capacity if they are to secure the public support and the resources that are essential to sustain it:
We need to learn how to work with communities--it's not what we do to them or for them but what we do with them. We have great opportunities now to [help make] safer communities… if we develop partnerships with law enforcement and with neighborhoods…. [F]ive things keep coming up that the public wants:
(1) to be safe from violent crime
(2) offenders to be held accountable
(3) offenders to repair the damage they have caused
(4) offenders to get treatment where that makes for safe release from incarceration, and
(5) public [and victim] involvement in the decision-making process….
But the public wants public safety now, in their neighborhoods. They don't care about national crime rates. They want to know what's going on as they walk out of their door in their community. And so we have to provide public safety by holding accountable the offenders in their neighborhoods, but we also have to do what we now call the "what works" stuff [for public safety in the long run]…. Do we have the organizational capacity to pull this off at this point?• Probably not, although we do have a lot [of the necessary techniques].
This was properly taken as a challenge--a challenge to create new relationships within agencies, with other agencies, between agencies and communities, and with offenders and victims. There were many examples given of success in creating such relationships, but there were many tales of frustration and disappointment too, and some reluctance to take up so daunting a challenge. This part of the conversation provided early glimpses of one possible "minimalist" future:
My fear is that we create this great plan but we don't have the staff that can implement it … this is a moment [when] we have to really look at who we've got in our agency right now and how to best use them.
No one seemed to doubt the mismatch, in most agencies, between current operational capacity and the demands of producing what the public seems to want. But there was sharp disagreement about the wisdom of continuing to do business in a way that reflects capacity, if it does not also reflect demand:
If we ask what do we do best and then we build a strategy for our agencies, you know, if we stick to what we do best, that's gonna turn out terrific if just by happenstance what we do best is directly related to something valuable to the community. But if what we do best is not valuable that way--what a waste of talent and money and time. [As] crime problems, are somehow uniquely within the jurisdiction of the agencies here, the question becomes, okay, "What could we usefully do about those problems--at the individual level, at the group level, or in places [where crime is a problem]?"
These early exchanges framed a series of increasingly specific discussions about how the legal authority, techniques, and resources of probation and parole agencies might be effectively harnessed to other forces--principally the naturally-occurring forces of social control in neighborhoods--to generate or maintain public safety and offender accountability.
Who's the client?
One way the group tried to get clear about purpose was to ask, "who is the client?" With the community corrections field having some of its roots in the social work profession, "client" is naturally used to refer to offenders--who do have needs, and whose future behavior might well be improved by professional attention to those needs. But for a public agency with a public safety dimension to its mission, other clients vie for service:
A: Our officers are on a treadmill, you know, with their high case loads. You know, they can keep up but they're not getting anywhere. Our focus … is officer accountability--making sure that they make sure their clients are doing what they're supposed to be doing. That's what I think our responsibility is to the court and to the public, and, you know, I think we do it okay--considering the numbers that we have.
B: I'm confused…. Is our client the victim? Is our client the governor? Is our client the other politicians? Is our client "the client"? Is our client the community? We're in the state of perpetual change. And I'm not convinced we ourselves know what we're changing for.
A: Would your answers to "what's the purpose?" and "what should you do?" be different, depending on the answer to "who's your client"?
B: I think so.
1. Is the offender the client?
The transcript reveals the question to have been asked rhetorically, whether the offender under supervision is the client. The implied answer was: "of course not." There was a lot of attention given to the utility of individual-level treatment, counseling, job programs and the like. But the value of these features of community supervision was gauged by the contribution they might make to public safety, through lower rates of re-offending by individual offenders. And doubts were expressed about the power of these mainstays of probation and parole to have lasting effect unless they are imbued with the principles advanced in recent "what works" literature. A major theme in the conversation became the tenuous connection between the public safety objectives of probation and parole agencies and the treatment goals of the "service-providers" they engage. The related worry is that "referrals" rather than "outcomes" have become the measure of performance:
A: You know, supervision agents will say, "Well, it's not our job to be treatment people."
B: What do they say is their job?
A: Generally they'll say their job is to do referrals, you know? … It's the brokerage model that sort of has the history within the field. So, that leaves a lack of accountability
C: How good have probation and parole been at holding treatment providers to account for the quality, the place, the timing, the effects, the plausibility of the treatments?
D: What we monitor has very little to do with what we're trying to achieve.
C: If you were measured by how many people got clean and sober, you'd damn well ask that question of the treatment agency, but since no one's asking you, all you have to report is how many referrals did you make…. You don't know if it's even producing sobriety, and the legislature wants to know if it's reducing recidivism.
D: Right. And so as a manager, right, you [want] to know about the sobriety. Same with the employment program--[you] want to know how many people have jobs [not how many went through the program]…. I don't want for any program whatsoever. I directly and indirectly control all of our contracts, and [the providers] do listen, and we have specified outcomes.… The problem is that there's not one damn outcome that I'm being held to. And that's part of … "What really is our purpose and what are we willing to own?"
E: The [other] complexity that always comes … is, if I have somebody that's clean and sober, they have two other issues--
B: Yeah, and they always do, right?
E: And the agency--me as the agency--I've got two out of three covered, but I missed the third one. What's that worth? … [W]e as a profession aren't clear about what we will be held accountable for and what we won't be.
B: I gotcha. The conversation did suggest that the field is getting much more sophisticated and exacting about what sorts of services will be provided to offenders on probation and parole, despite myriad difficulties such as these, and despite budgetary woes and rising caseloads. But even where the "what works" research is informing the design of programs for offenders, and the assignment of individual offenders to them, the "client" in the end is not the individual--it is the public. Changes for the better in offenders' lives have value in themselves, but it is the hoped-for changes for the better in their behavior towards the rest of us that justifies referral to the program and the cost of the interventions. Participants in this conversation thought it obvious that this is the reason why authority and resources have been placed with probation and parole agencies.
Still, there were powerful challenges to the idea that sufficient public value would be generated by probation and parole getting better at the otherwise conventional business of treating the addiction and joblessness and other disabilities of offenders under community supervision:
The moment is right for some dramatic change … and my fear is … we tend to be incrementalists. I hear too many people hoping to get ... caseloads down to 60, [to get] resource-rich, wonderful treatment opportunities--and it's not the answer…. [T]he answer's getting rid of a caseload mentality altogether and sitting around the table with community members. They'll tell you what your mission ought to be. They're going to tell you what you have to do to keep that community safe, and what you can do, and if we can do that it's very exciting. The problem is … while we want to make our work count more in the community, our legislature wants us to continue counting [referrals and] contacts that we're making in the field.
2. Is the court the client, and enforcement of its orders the purpose?
For many participants, particularly those with organizational homes in the judicial branch, questions about the purpose of their activity were answerable, at least reflexively, by reference to the directions found in court orders. The court's order, some argued, provides the framework for agency operations and for decisions in the individual case. Others objected that there were many cases in which there was no clear probation order, that the content of supervision orders is usually based on what the probation agents recommend and that, in either case, treating the court as client did not provide an independent, clear statement of purpose--even in the individual case:
The court may be sure it does not want that robber to rob anymore, but does it expect that offender's supervision to be revoked for drug relapse, for failing to make restitution, for changing residence without the [probation or parole] agent's approval?
Many participants noted that the percentage of cases in which probation orders are issued after consideration of pre-sentence reports (PSIs) has been declining in recent years, in part because of the rising use of sentencing guidelines. Many pointed out that, in fact, court orders in individual cases are increasingly lists of "standard conditions" which lack the particularity from which the court's real purpose might emerge. Here's one forceful expression of such objections:
Even for jurisdictions who are directly under the administration of the court … I've long felt that [they have] suffered from feeling inherently empowered by being an agent of the court. I don't think that empowers them one bit…. If anything, I think it puts us at the mercy of court decisions, even though we may try and influence them. And I also think it reinforces a very narrow definition of our role and responsibility…. So I think [we] fall into that kind of victim mentality, in part because [we have] defined [our] power and worth as coming from the court.
Nevertheless, attention to the formal conditions of probation orders was viewed by almost everyone as critically important--important for offender accountability, but also for agency accountability:
[People want to] know: what percentage of restitution ordered was paid and how quickly? What percentage of community service hours was delivered and how quickly? What level of compliance was there with the electronic monitoring or curfews? What about other financial assessments? How many people got clean and sober and stayed clean and sober…? I think we have to be able to talk turkey about that.
In this view, a key measure of operational capacity (or lack of it) in probation and parole agencies is the level of offender compliance with the conditions specified in court orders:
It isn't necessary that people successfully complete probation--that's a definitional term. What is more the concern is that few people meet their court requirements and mandates, and so people may terminate from their period of probation when the period expires, but they have yet to complete their conditions, and may have actually neglected significant ones. So the question is: What is the role of probation? Is it is to enforce the conditions, or is it to prevent and deter [re-offending]?"
A parallel conversation was taking place about the rationale for enforcing the conditions of supervision--even when there may be no direct public safety benefit of doing so:
I think most responses to violations get at another outcome which we're not talking about: I think people file revocations to protect the integrity of the criminal justice system. It has nothing to do with public safety. There's an independent justification for it… your just deserts, your penalty for this act is that you must do the following five things. If you don't do them, I'm gonna find another way to punish you.
Because many participants believe that their agencies create value for the larger community in part by avoiding the necessity and cost of prison when that is possible, there was ambivalence in the conversation about enforcing court-ordered conditions. A strong case was made, however, for the proposition that violations do not necessarily require imprisonment, even though public demand for accountability requires enforcement.
Even in serious violations--even, sometimes, including new offenses--I have found in some communities … they didn't necessarily want imprisonment. [They wanted] revocation, they definitely wanted some form of consequence. Otherwise, they felt this person was continuing to be able to sort of thumb his nose at them and the system.
Another participant actually referred to enforcement of the court order as "the pinnacle of what it is we do," but emphasized the importance of securing offenders' compliance rather than securing revocation:
What tools do we have available to enforce those court orders that we receive? Five years ago we had the same wrench to enforce every court order that we got. We needed to find new wrenches, new tools, new things to try and enforce those court orders. Judges want people to pay money. How can they pay money if they don't have employment? How can they get employment if they don't have education? How can they do any of that stuff if they're using drugs and you're not able to get them off of them? So what tools we have or what weapons we have in our arsenal to cause certain things to happen [will determine whether we're] able to actually enforce those orders….
The discussion reached a level of considerable complexity and subtlety, raising questions of purpose not directly answerable by identifying "the client":
Is citing a person for a violation and sending them back a success or failure? It's a success if I've prevented them from committing a new crime. It's a failure if my goal was to promote their success. What I want them to do is … internalize community values. That is the best, long-lasting, least-costly means of protecting communities. I do that in a variety of ways, there are a variety of tactics that I engage in. Interfering with their lives, harassing them, letting them know I'm watching them is certainly one, and it's an important one, and it has residual benefits in terms of public safety [because I'm out there in the community], where I can accomplish more….
Q: And where, if you've failed to promote their success, you can catch them?
A: Right. But the question remains, what are the things … we believe we can do to them to create productive law-abiding citizens, who can then go about without the extremes of our control … to lead productive, law-abiding lives. Will they be able to work? Will they be able to raise their families responsibly? Will they be able to remain sober? … [A]re we willing to accept the responsibility, 10 years out, for having done that--[even if] having attempted to do it we have not substantially affected the probabilities of success or failure and that those dollars would have been better spent in other ways?
Q: [But] if you're going to engage in these activities, putting your officers out there and everything, chances are you're going to increase the rate of catching people doing bad things that escaped detection before. So your failure rates [go up]?
A: The question is what you do when you discover those activities. When you go out and you discover your parolees or your probationers hanging out and using drugs, the question is what do you do to interrupt that behavior. What activities can you engage in? And if your only response is to lock them up and send them back to prison...
Q: … then you haven't got accountability the way you want; you haven't got the public safety you want; you haven't got the deployment of public resources the way you want it.
While there was general agreement that conditions of supervision in court orders require enforcement, there was also agreement that failure to limit conditions to a plausible few simply sets offenders up for violation, which might be deemed the offender's failure, but might be understood as a failure of the agency's supervision:
The number of conditions, it's escalated over the last 20 years…. I'm working on a project where prosecutors, public defenders, probation agents, and the judiciary have got together to define, for drug-involved offenders, what the conditions of probation should [be in] their court order.… One is reporting, the other is going to their treatment, and the other is drug testing. And another is the small fine that goes with it. [We had] to redefine the nature of conditions because the average client, or the average offender, had somewhere around 12 conditions, you know. We wouldn't have expected them to complete 12.
Debate about whether the court is the client, and about whether enforcement of court orders is the core purpose of community supervision, spanned the entire meeting, erupting periodically. It was not settled, but substantial progress was made after several participants began insisting on answers to their question: "What problems are we prepared to own?" The clear consensus was that refusal to be held accountable for addressing some problems of general public interest is a sure recipe for a very pinched future indeed. If the court's order prescribes plausible measures for addressing problems of importance to the public, fine. If not, the court's order blocks agencies' use of their operational capacity to create public value. But it proved difficult for participants to hammer out consensus on what problems probation and parole agencies would be willing to be held accountable for--largely because of doubts about their current operational capacity to handle the problems nominated.
The list of problems that might be "owned" became too long before it became manageable: we could own whatever problems are specified in the court order; we could own punishment; we could own getting restitution for victims; we could own integrity in the correctional system; we could own harm reduction; we could own the internalization of community values by offenders and by our agencies; we could own the building of effective self-protecting communities; we could own reduction in fear; we could own the restoration of victims and communities and the repair of relationships between them and the offenders in their midst. We could, more modestly, own the apprehension of offenders who fail to comply with supervision conditions. Or, more ambitiously, we could own the reduction of recidivism among those under correctional supervision, while they're under our supervision--or for the rest of their lives.
In any event, the group's discussion of court orders did not seem to advance it's search for purpose:
Twenty, 30 years ago, people in this field, I think, viewed themselves as much more engaged both in the community and with the offender and you had … people entering the field of probation with social work degrees. That has significantly changed, and if you ask a number of our probation officers, in juvenile or adult, what is their primary role or what do they really hang on to, even though they may … desire to help out on other issues, "it's my role to make sure they abide by the orders the courts set for them…." But that does not necessarily reflect one damn thing about what the community wants or needs… or what the agency can do, and it tends to put us primarily in a broker, service referral role. [It] allows us to think more in terms of monitoring than any form of active intervention in the life of this individual or their community.
The final word on whether the court can usefully be thought of as the "client" goes to the participants who argued that tradition-bound officers' tendency to take refuge in the court's order might be used affirmatively, to attach them to new purposes and new methods:
A: Maybe there's an opportunity here . . . .[I]f in fact the culture or probation officers is to enforce the court order, then why aren't we investing a lot more time in how to shape that court order to increase [our use of community] guardianship, which could find its way into the court order?
B: I think when you enforce court orders you prevent further crimes from happening. You have opportunities to protect the public. And if we start looking at maybe different types of court orders, you're going to have a lot of opportunities for reweaving the community…. Court orders for victim protection in domestic violence cases, you shall pay child support. Court orders that include things like family group conferencing for reintegrating both the victim and the offender, we need to be looking, I think, at better use of court orders to accomplish public safety and to reweave the community. I don't see a difference between those at all. I think that we have opportunities to make them all one, you know, one goal.
3. Is the community the client, and its greater safety the purpose?
Throughout the discussion are references to assets held by the community--assets for effective supervision of offenders, and political assets for repositioning and refinancing community corrections. There is also repeated acknowledgment of the need for any public agency to produce something of public value--suggesting that there is a public client.
The importance of this line of thought became clear in a discussion about whether it is desirable to notify communities of the identity and risks posed by offenders in their midst who are under probation or parole supervision. The conversation started with debate about the desirability and problems of sex offender notification--now required, in some form, in all states--but it broadened quickly. The question became whether community notification about the presence of offenders is desirable in general--as an end in itself or a means for invoking community participation in active supervision for its own safety. It was noted that this activity might be undertaken in quite different ways, depending on the purpose:
Q: Does it not make sense to highly publicize or circulate information in neighborhoods about at least those adults who are on probation?
A: Well, …[i]f our primary concern is the reintegration of the offender, then we're gonna be slow to do it. If our primary concern is the safety of the public….
A: But isn't it a little more complicated? Whatever your primary concern, you've always got different cases, different places, different people, different types of crimes, different things you are worried about somebody doing. A lot of times the long-term safety of the community--and it's tranquillity--depends on the successful reintegration of its offenders. But that can't be inconsistent with informing ourselves about the immediate public safety concerns--though managing potential conflict between the two is gonna be a problem.
Q: But there may be no conflict: A guy runs a small garage who learns, because he's a member of a neighborhood watch group or whatever, that I'm on probation in his neighborhood. He's just as likely to reach out and say, "Look, you're not working, what's going on with you?" "I don't have a job." "Why don't you drop by my machine shop tomorrow and I'll give you something to do." I honestly find that in poor and working class neighborhoods this is just as likely to be the effect of learning someone's on probation or parole as "We're gonna run you out the neighborhood." So you gotta notify if you're gonna expect the community to join you in the public safety job. But not just notify. You've gotta tell them about the role you're gonna play--otherwise you leave them saying, well, now I know what? I know that I'm at a risk of the same thing I've always been at risk of but now I know who it is. Why am I better off? I wouldn't want to go around telling everybody in my neighborhood who the offenders are without standing up and saying, "By the way, do call me, right? Call me if you see him where he's not supposed to be."
There was similar debate and exploration of the purpose of other instruments of modern community corrections. Is community service by offenders part of their punishment? Or does its value lie in its use to create political support for community corrections? In its capacity to restore communities by physical repair of them? In the opportunities it affords to connect offenders to the labor market? Or is it an end in itself? But as these questions were addressed, there was increasing endorsement of the idea that the "community" is close to the right answer to "Who is the client?"
Of course, asking that question also revealed potential conflicts between possible clients, and between various purposes any one client might have. The complexity of crime victims' purposes helped define this dilemma: the (not universal) interest victims have in punishing the offender, and punishment's potential conflict with restitution to the victim; victims' common desire for apology, and the common failure of community corrections to realize that or to help victims secure it or to help offenders discover its restorative power; victims' desire to be kept informed about the offender being held accountable in an appropriate way, and their common desire to put the crime behind them. There was a keen sense of the legitimacy of these internally conflicting desires, but many around the table were uncertain what services probation and parole can and should deliver to crime victims, and what the purpose should be. Would the purpose be to advance public safety? To rehabilitate the offenders? To satisfy the properly aggrieved?
To many participants in the conversation, it seemed important to know the answer. But quite a few pointed out that attending to victims, like many conventional conditions of community supervision, may hold undoubted value for the community even when they have no obvious public safety effect. Community service was offered as an example:
What's the public safety dividend of community service? … [T]there doesn't have to be one. There's an entirely independent justification for community service, irrespective of it's impact. If it were neutral on public safety it would still be a good thing to do because public safety is not all that the public wishes to see … served through probation. [I]f you asked them--if you spent enough time with them and said "well what is it that you really want to see probation do?"--they would say at least three things and public safety would be one of them, but they would say "I want to see this person pay a fair penalty for what they've done." And it's not clear to me that that necessarily has a public safety payoff…. They want the sentence to have that kind of moral authority even if it doesn't change the life of the individual who receives it as a result, and I think that's an independent worthy justification for community service…. [T]he third one … is that the victim be made whole or, in the absence of a particular victim, that the community be restored, [which community service does].
Finally, although there was excitement and optimism about embracing the "community" as the client, and about creating value for crime victims and other especially interested or vulnerable parts of that community, there was skepticism and even despair about the ability of probation and parole agencies to identify properly and to satisfy adequately such demanding and complex clients:
What has always been the problem of corrections, particularly community corrections, is trying to serve all these different masters…. We can expand ourselves way too much, which has been the history of corrections, and then we dilute the principle purpose of having supervised release--whether it's probation, parole, or pre-trial…. I found it really troubling that people want to go into these other areas, and we have to be very careful and ask is that really the role of probation?
The debate approached resolution when those arguing that probation and parole should be held accountable for advancing public safety, broadly defined, were challenged to limit the definition of this "public safety" purpose to the reduction of recidivism among offenders under supervision. The challengers nominated "recidivism reduction" as what community corrections should "own," not only because reducing recidivism would presumably have public safety benefits, but also because recidivism is something they believe probation and parole own whether they like it of not--because of widespread public expectations that this is a if not the primary purpose of probation and parole supervision:
Every legislative session that I've been to says we measure success in corrections, up and down, using recidivism as a part of that measure…. You know it's like the bad Christmas tie, or the vase that's the wrong color. We may not want it but we own it because somebody gives it to us--until we find a way to give it away to someone else….
Public Safety and Reduced Recidivism.
An important debate followed. What is public safety? How much would lower recidivism among probationers and parolees contribute to it? Those who argued for a robust conception of public safety argued that probation and parole would have to address community conditions giving rise to public safety problems--not just re-offending by individuals currently under supervision. Those who argued that the community's public safety interest was properly addressed by reducing recidivism did so both because they worried that the more robust purpose would prove unachievable, and because the legal authority of these agencies is focused on individuals.
If the group was going to "own" recidivism, participants wondered how long was it to be theirs? "For the period of supervision" was an attractive answer and seemed more feasible than "for the indefinite future." But most acknowledged that the public's interest, and perhaps its expectation, is to be spared the probationer's or parolee's further crime for the indefinite future. And all acknowledged that the choice of supervision strategies is shaped by whether the responsibility is short term or long term or both. For offenders whose crimes are related to drug use, for example, long-term avoidance of recidivism might require tolerance of some substance-abuse recidivism during the short term, so that responses to early relapses do not prevent attaching an offender to the labor market, to family, and to community in ways that promise greater socialization in the long term.
But many participants in the conversation were attracted to the notion that public safety is more than a reduction of recidivism, that it is a condition found in places where people are free to live their lives without threat of criminal acts against their persons or property. There was frequent acknowledgment that this condition requires more than the reform of known offenders--it requires guardianship for victims, places, and offenders. "Guardians," as the term was used in this discussion, are persons who have protective relationships to offenders, to potential victims, and to places where they might come together under conditions suitable to a crime. Places enjoying public safety seem to have lots of naturally-occurring guardians, but probation and parole have guardianship responsibilities too, and it was argued that a robust view of these agencies' capacity to help generate public safety entails active pursuit of all three kinds of guardianship, most often in collaboration with others living and working in places where offenders under supervision, and their potential victims, are found.
Attractive though this conception of public safety was to many, the prospect of "owning" a problem for which this was the solution was daunting--partly because advancing public safety this way might be beyond the skills and inclinations of line probation and parole officers:
[B]y teaching [agents] to be offender-focused, we created one of the problems. We want them to engage communities but we're not teaching them the skills and the abilities that they need to go out and do that. Instead, we're teaching them how to watch people, how to work with offenders, and how to document their activities.
That concern was coupled with worry that so many others--other agencies and individual actors not within any government agency--would have to be part of the solution to public safety problems conceived this way. The power of this reservation diminished somewhat when it was noted that "control" over an individual offender's recidivism is also dependent on persons outside probation and parole agencies--with the offender being an important independent actor.
The discussion finally revealed the fact that no one agency is responsible for public safety, not the police, not corrections, not probation, not the fire department. All have responsibility for matters which frequently relate to public safety, though in what manner is poorly understood. The case for a robust view of the public safety purpose of probation and parole was put in a number of ways. Reduced recidivism was found inadequate as a definition of public safety, by those who focused on the need to address the needs of crime victims, for example:
If you're concerned about public safety, you're concerned about the unknown offenders who make places in the community unsafe, as well as the known offenders on probation and parole. Also, … most of the way we serve victims is to try to get them their restitution, but that's [possible] only for the known offenders … so I don't think it's just the known and unknown offenders--it's known and unknown victims [and] I think we carry responsibility to all victims whether they got an offender attached to 'em or not.
But the following exchange captures the main argument:
A: Suppose you got a street corner with some probationers on it who are noisy and raising hell, and some non-probationers on it who are noisy and raising hell, and the [probation officer] comes and deals with his guys, right? Of course, the street corner is still noisy and [there's] raising hell and all the things that folks don't want to exist. Now, has the probation or parole officer done the public safety job?
B: You know, I'm not so sure that you can deal only with the known offenders [even if the purpose is to get the known offenders to stop].… [I]f our goal is to keep those known offenders law abiding, we have to deal with public safety where we find them, because those others are influences on the known offenders…. [T]o keep them from violating their probation, we have to set up an environment in which they can comply.
C: One subtle point…. one subtle point is you can use your leverage over the known offenders to deal with the other guys on the street corner, right? I mean, that's one of the things that you can do.
Still, there was great appeal to the idea that the public safety interests of the community are served by reducing recidivism among offenders under probation or parole supervision. It was put most clearly in these words:
I sense a reluctance in this group to really seize ownership for that which I think we can control and should be owners of. Recidivism and crime, for one. I mean it just seems to me at the very minimum we should take ownership of recidivism rates and crime rates of people under our supervision. And I personally think that so many offenders are under our supervision that that would in fact have a significant beneficial impact to the larger community. Yet, I go to APPA conferences and I hear that so many of my colleagues, you know, don't want to even measure it because they don't think it's something that we can control; they don't want to set up performance-based personnel systems where we track those specific outcomes and reward employees on recidivism rates for people on their caseloads. So it just seems like we shy away from biting the bullet, and to the extent that we're talking about prevention and all kinds of other things, valuable though they are, it shifts attention away from what we ought to be doing just as a bare minimum. Drugs is another one…. [P]robably two-thirds of everybody that we're dealing with has a drug problem. And we don't want to take ownership for reducing drug use among our caseloads…. And I think some of these very basic things that we might be doing could have a huge impact on our community if we were willing to take ownership of it and employ strategies that have worked in some areas.
Reducing recidivism and drug use seemed the most obvious--and might be the most realistic--strategy for probation and parole agencies which aim to serve their communities' interest in public safety. But the suggestion of it begged larger questions for some participants:
[W]e can wrap control around people while they're under supervision and reduce likelihood they're going to commit a crime and do absolutely no good down the road. So [it's not enough to say] public safety is the degree we have control over those people under our auspices at the time. Those of us who have been examining the "what works" literature and then applying the techniques, [to us] reduction of recidivism means 3, 4, 5 years after I've got my hands off of them.
There were other objections, as well, to the idea that reducing the recidivism of probationers and parolees would suffice as the purpose of agencies from whom greater public safety is expected:
I'm okay with having a responsibility for reducing recidivism. I'm okay with that. [But] I'm not sure about "owning" that, because doesn't that shift the responsibility or the burden away from the offender? Also, if you take ownership of it and then you try to develop strategies to resolve it or to reduce recidivism, I mean we can do that easily by just locking every technical violator up.… And that's happened in a lot of jurisdictions. And then there's the public saying, or the government saying, wait a minute, there's too many people in jail for probation violation, you're locking too many people up.
But the most powerful objection went to the very idea that probation and parole could plausibly create public safety--no matter how it was defined:
Do we have the capacity to produce public safety? … I am overwhelmed by skepticism. What's the underlying hypothesis of offender casework? By [reducing the recidivism] of individuals there will be greater safety for the community? [Why would we expect] aggregate effects? What is the hypothesis of community justice? By focusing on places rather than people there will be some increase in public safety?… Everybody says, "Well, community justice and getting the officers out of the office and working interactively with the community is a better way of doing it." It's certainly better than the old caseload-centered, individual-centered referral-based approach, so it's relatively better than that. But is it better than other things that we can be doing? … And I find myself asking, "Are we not being self-serving?" We have a need to find a way for the work that we do to have meaning. Are we searching for a way to legitimate what we do? Are we being dishonest about the fact that, however resource-poor we are, it's still a lot of dollars we're spending on community supervision•and those dollars spent another way could perhaps improve our communities' safety more effectively and more efficiently.
Powerful though these questions were, in the ebb and flow of the conversation, few were shaken from a belief that the community's public safety problems are inescapably the ones probation and parole must take on, and that the future will be bleak indeed if the challenge is avoided. This comment best sums up the mood:
It seems like we're [arguing] a little bit more about owning strategies than owning the outcome or the problem. And frankly … folks really don't care how we get to safety within a wide range of parameters as long as we're not brutally harsh on folks or terribly lenient on folks. Whether it's visiting nurse-type strategies, which seems to make sense and have at least face validity, or enforcing court orders, or both, folks want to be safe today and they want to be safe tomorrow, and they want justice and want some restoration and so on…. [T]he reality is that we live in worlds where folks are not enforcing court orders very well or doing the community, the visiting nurses concept very well, but they're doing a bunch of [other] things … and they're recording those activities like the gnomes of Zurick on pieces of paper, unrelated to outcome. It's crucial for us to recognize that we need to step ahead a little bit in our thinking … because [although some of your probation and parole] officers are out there, it seems to me that, in a large number of probation departments, their officers aren't even out there. So it's not even like an add-on for those folks; they can't even talk about the surveillance stuff or the enforcement of court orders stuff … And they can't scan the environment regarding the visiting nurse concept because they're not even in the homes, in large numbers of jurisdictions…. But let's not talk even about owning strategies until we're sure that those strategies produce the relevant outcome.
The group's attempts to define a role for probation and parole, in relation to the community, to specify the public safety benefit their agencies might produce--and to agree on a problem they are prepared to "own"--was exhausting, in part because of the enthusiasm of some and the deep reservations of others. Proximity to "dangerous opportunity" drew this remark from one:
I can't say I own public safety. I can say I will be an active, vibrant, contributing, aggressive member in attempting to contribute to public safety. Where are judges, where's the prosecutor, where's the police? I can't own public safety. If I'm going to leave here, I'm going to check into a mental hospital instead of going back [home] because I can't handle the verbiage.
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