Some might describe America as being a nation of prisoners. There is no escaping the fact that our society produces many laws that result in many infractions of these laws which eventually result in many prisoners and court cases.
The role of probation and the probation officer in this chaotic mess we call the justice system plays a pivotal role in the effectiveness of a communities approach on crime. The purpose of this essay is to examine the role of the probation officer within the criminal justice systems and how probation as a means to solving our crime problem is succeeding or failing. In order to fairly address this subject, it is necessary to examine this idea from several viewpoints. First the essay will look at how probation is viewed by the general population and the larger picture in general. After summarizing the current status, this essay will argue that the probation officer and probation programs have definite ways of helping people and reducing the stress on our criminal and justice systems when the right principles are applied. This essay will conclude by offering suggestions for the future on how probation may be modified to serve society at an even higher and more effective level.
The Current Status of Probation
The landscape of American sentencing policy has changed significantly over the past decades. States have enacted a wide variety of sentencing reforms, most of them designed to increase the use of imprisonment as a response to crime. Three strikes laws have been passed to keep persistent offenders in prison for life. Mandatory minimums have been instituted to require imposition of a prison term for designated crimes. Truth in sentencing schemes have been embraced to ensure a long prison term for violent offenders.
Over the same period, states across the country have made a number of changes in one of the bedrocks of American criminal justice policy, the institution commonly referred as parole. Some states have abolished the role of parole boards in deciding whether and when to release prisoners from custody. Others have cut back on parole supervision, releasing more prisoners directly to the community. Some states have aggressively enforced the conditions of parole, thereby discovering more parole violations and sending more parolees back to prison.
During the same period, parole practices have changed significantly. Most parole agencies rely on drug testing as a way to determine whether a parolee has kept his promise to remain drug free. More states are allowing parole officers to carry weapons. A number of jurisdictions are requiring parolees to wear electronic bracelets to ascertain whether they abide by limitations on their movement. And the size of the parole population has grown substantially. In 1980, there were 220,000 individuals supervised by parole agencies across the country. In 2000 there were 725,000, an all-time high.
Gonczol (2005) finds this to be quite alarming compared to Europe and other westernized nations. He suggested that "in the U.S.A. there are over two million men, women and children in federal and state prisons and local jails. In 2001, it overtook Russia as the country with the greatest proportion of its citizens in confinement. The U.S.A. has just under 5% of the world's total population, but 25% of the world's prisoners. I agree with Nicole Fontaine, the President of the European Parliament who in 2000 said ' Within the EU Parliament, the voice of 370 million Europeans, a vast majority cannot understand why the United States is the only major democratic state in the world that carries out the death penalty'" (p.183). It is evident, by global standards that America's justice system is broken at many different levels.
Abadinsky (2009) explained this problem from the probation level-view. He wrote " in the absence of release by a parole board, when probationers or early-releasees generate negative publicity, new legislation curtails the use of these schemes, and in an endless cycle, either new prison building and staffing must ensue or additional schemes must be developed to reduce prison populations and achieve a semblance of equilibrium.
Getting lost in this often-simplistic approach to crime and criminals is any serious attention to the fate of persons released from prison who are uneducated, unskilled, unemployed, and now hardened by the prison experience. That such persons would resort to crime cannot be surprising, and the wheels of criminal justice continue to spin, generating heat but not light."
Criminal justice in America is an outgrowth of a fundamental distrust of government.
Authority is divided between centralized federal and state governments, and at each level power is diffused further, shared by three branches: executive, legislative, judicial, in a system referred to as the separation of powers.
In each state, authority is shared by governments at the municipal, county, and state levels. Thus, policing is primarily a function of municipal government, whereas jails are usually run by the county often by the sheriff. Probation may be a county or state function, whereas prison and usually parole systems are the responsibility of state government, although in some states (e.g., Iowa and Oregon), parole and probation supervision is a function of the county or judicial district. There is also a separate federal system of criminal justice that can and often does supersede local jurisdictions (p.6).
Of the three major components of a parole system the release decision, community supervision, and parole revocation, the decision to release convicted offenders back into society probably has seen more examination by policymakers and researchers and has more engaged the public than the other two components.
When the decision to release an offender from prison has been made, either by a parole board or mandated by statute the next step in the parole process is to determine who will be placed on community supervision after release. This legal status is commonly referred to as parole supervision. With conditional releases, former prisoners are placed on supervision in the community for a pre-determined period of time and must adhere to certain conditions of release. Typical release conditions include regular reporting to a parole officer, drug testing, maintaining employment, and no possession of weapons. Failure to observe such conditions may result in a return to prison. The term conditional release typically refers to parole, although a number of states have adopted other terms such as community punishment, supervised release, and controlled release. Unconditional releases are just that, releases from prison with no special obligations. Prisoners released unconditionally do not have a parole officer and limited if any restrictions on their movement and activities.
The Probation Officer Relationship
The large scope picture is daunting, however the individual relationships that probation officers conduct with those in trouble have significant and immediate impact on the future success or failure of that person. Community corrections at every level of government is part of a process: the justice process. This is a process that begins with an arrest and continues in court. It may include a prison term followed by release to the community on supervision. The officers who provide community supervision are key players in the justice process, but they don't work alone. They collaborate with or support the work of others, such as attorneys, judges, police, and prison officials.
Sieh (2006) continually emphasized the human element in dealing with this problem and viewed solutions in manner that aimed to restore human dignity and respect as a principle in the entire process. He wrote " supporting human dignity is important because one cannot afford the loss of civility that comes with ignoring its importance. Humans need to understand that all people, whether newborns or the elderly, have value. Treating the offender with dignity is an essential value for a well-functioning correctional system. To operate otherwise only perpetuates a life of crime and expense. Correctional officials have to be careful in dealing with offenders inasmuch as they have a great deal of power and discretion and few restraints" (p.25).
Morals and ethics therefore become very important in dealing in corrections and especially at the probation officer level. Many theories or models of probation suggest many different approaches varying in many different ways. Some, more conservative theories, lay much of the offender's behavior on individual responsibility paradigms where the lack of success falls on the in person. More liberal views of corrections suggest that environmental factors create much of the influence to the behavior of criminals and the criminal mind.
Vidal & Skeem's (2007) study suggested that juvenile corrections officials are bias in many ways towards certain populations. Their work stated "for abused youth, officers are likely to recommend psychological services and "go the extra mile" by providing greater support, referrals, and networking than is typical for their caseload. For psychopathic youth, officers expect poor treatment outcomes and are" extra strict," enforcing rules that typically are not enforced for others on their caseload " (p.479). Standard probation officer behavior may be impossible to find, regulate or mandate due to the many variables that go into any specific criminal or criminal case.