For two days in December 1998, thoughtful leaders and innovators in probation and parole gathered for a strategic discussion sponsored by the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. We put to them the following questions:
• Are we at the dawn of a golden age of probation and parole? Has practical and scientific knowledge accumulated to the point where improved community supervision of offenders can make a big difference to the public?
• Or is this a moment of great risk and vulnerability? With correctional resources increasingly allocated to imprisonment, does community corrections have the operational capacity to produce something the public wants? Would public value flow from reinvestment in probation and parole supervision?
The ensuing conversation did not rehash the recent "what works" literature, on which many of the participants are drawing as they devise new correctional programs, nor was it given over to show-and-tell--though the participants' accomplishments are many. And it did not wallow in wishful thinking: "If only we were given enough resources ...." The conversation was, instead, a critical examination of community corrections at the end of the 20th century--a session rich in practical wisdom and candor.
Our task is to give readers an opportunity to hear some of that conversation, to think about what it portends for the future of this field, and to decide whether the moment is, as most of those present thought, one of "dangerous opportunity" for probation and parole. "Dangerous opportunity" was best expressed by one participant's introductory remark:
Despite a proliferation of outstanding cutting-edge programs, for the most part and in most places public regard for probation is dangerously low, and for the most part in most places what passes for probation supervision is a joke. It's conceptually bankrupt and it's politically not viable. I'm very optimistic in the face of that, because I know the models [that people around this table have] developed, and I think they can add up to a regenerated probation that will have real public value. I throw in with those who think our crisis is not primarily one of finance--though those issues are real--and not primarily one of technique, but one of value: we have to recognize that we won't have broad public legitimacy, that people won't buy what we're selling [unless we] connect with a set of values and purposes that people choose to invest in. I'm confident we can do that.
In this report, we want to explore the contours of this "dangerous opportunity" for probation and parole, and then to outline briefly the possible futures for community corrections, as we glimpsed them in the conversation--what each future might hold, and how likely it is to come to pass. We see five possible futures:
First, it is important to note the variety of organizational and institutional contexts from which our participants speak about community supervision of offenders: some are principally responsible for institutional matters, some for juvenile, some for adult. Some run agencies which are responsible to courts, others are within the executive branch of a county or state. Some have responsibility for all or a part of community supervision within a correctional agency which is responsible for prisons as well, while others stand alone. Their operational capacities vary as well, within and among their agencies. A few are adequately financed and staffed, but most are not. They operate within political environments that vary from county to county, state to state and, sometimes, month to month. These variations begin to explain many of the differences of view expressed over the two days, and make remarkable the degree to which participants found themselves in agreement. (A list of those who participated over the two days and their institutional affiliations is appended.)