How sanctions help a probation officer's caseload

Probation officers have the ability to implement additional sanctions to help curb poor behavior and keep probationers on the right track to rehabilitation

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, written in a personal capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, or any other governmental agency.

As it states in my biography, this article is written from a field perspective within Community Corrections. Now that we have learned about criminogenic needs, which are traits that lead to criminal behavior, there are questions that remain of how probation officers should attempt to deal with issues that often come with a multitude of barriers to try addressing identified needs. Old-school thinking will tell us that the only way to deal with probationers or parolees is to simply watch them until they screw up, and then lock them up.

With many state and federal budgets now being criticized and often frozen when it relates to the corrections field, other alternatives have evolved that will allow us to continue meeting the demands of public safety. These alternatives brought several changes across various states that allowed probation and parole officers to enhance supervision by enforcing additional sanctions that don’t require the court’s permission prior to implementation.

Many people are often surprised to hear that probation officers can actually implement additional sanctions or restrictions without having to take a violator back to court. It’s truly an amazing concept. Not only does it free up the district attorney and public defender’s office, but it also frees up officers’ time so that they can focus more of their efforts on meeting the demands of their caseload. Probation officers must deal with quite a lot in the typical day-to-day supervision of caseload management. Possessing the ability to implement immediate sanctions for inappropriate behavior in an effort to correct that behavior is crucial to allowing officers to remain on track, and moving forward in a positive direction.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Earlier, there was a mention of addressing barriers. This refers to the fact that probation officers must create a professional working relationship with those assigned to their caseload. Many people cringe at this concept, but without truly understanding a person, there is no way to identify what may work versus what may not work when it comes time to sanction someone, and hold them accountable for their actions or behavior. For some people, jail time is simply a joke, while for others, missing time with family may be the key to getting someone back on the right path. Getting to know someone requires interpersonal skills, in addition to being able to pick up on subtle behavioral patterns.

A probation officers’ first visit with a new probationer or parolee is often simply a “meet and greet” type of interaction. The concept of this “meet and greet” is to help the officer identify strengths and weaknesses in an individual, as well as trying to find out what motivates that person. This analysis is crucial for an officer to be able to tailor supervision appropriately, because every person placed on community supervision requires a unique approach if we are to be successful at reducing recidivism.

This first interaction is an opportunity for an officer to set expectations, and explain the process of supervision which can include both sanctions when someone violates a condition of their probation, or rewards when someone completes a set task that may have been quite difficult to achieve. Yes, don’t rub your eyes, you did just read that officers must reward individuals on their caseload when they “toe the line,” so to speak.

Before you reach for that weapon, and attempt to find this author’s location, sit tight for a moment, because I’m not talking about the type of reward that you or I would want. I’m talking about simple rewards such as verbal recognition, or praise by a co-worker or supervisor. We often take for granted what it may feel like for an individual on supervision to successfully complete a substance abuse treatment program, mainly because many of us have never had to undergo such an experience.

When you consider the people that we work with on a daily basis, think about how much praise they may have received in the scope of their daily lives. Oftentimes, praise by someone in an authoritative position could be the most positive thing that they have ever experienced in their entire life. While praise and rewards go a long way, people do need to be held accountable when they cross the line, or fail to follow set directions.

Implementing additional sanctions in an attempt to regain compliance is the key to getting people back on the right path to success. Will it work for everyone? The simple answer is absolutely not. However, research, and personal experience shows that it does work with many people. When an individual is held accountable on the spot, they often do change negative behavior and start complying with sanctions imposed by the court.

One example I can provide includes an individual that continues to test positive for illegal substances. After the first positive test, the officer should have a stern direct conversation explaining the ramification if an individual elects to continue using. If they do continue to test positive after being warned, that officer could detain that violator, and enforce a short stint in jail in an attempt to “wake them up,” or get them back on track. Many people laugh at this concept, but for many people, the short disruption to daily life is often enough to rectify the situation at hand. For some, it may take two to three short stays in jail, while for others, jail time could be a joke, and officers would need to find alternative methods to attempt changing behavior.

There are many options that officers have to address concerns or violations of court ordered sanctions. As stated before, short stays in jail are one of the most popular. Research has shown from several states that continued violations are often reduced dramatically on individuals that have experienced a short jail stay versus those that have simply been brought back to court without any attempt to address negative behavior by the supervising officer.

Other options that officers have include possessing the ability to impose community service, electronic monitoring, house arrest, in addition to ordering educational, vocational, or substance abuse interventions. The authorization to order additional sanctions without having to spend the time filing paperwork and scheduling a court date is a huge win for officers supervising a caseload. Sanctions can be implemented on the spot, directly as a violation is observed as opposed to spending hours upon hours sitting and waiting for their case to be called to beg a judge to impose a sanction.

While this article is written from a Community Corrections perspective, what would happen if corrections officers possessed the ability to impose certain sanctions to address behavior without having to jump through the traditional “red tape” of government? Could that be something that might help officers behind the walls? Imaging possessing the authority to impose a sanction that would be relevant to the situation, without having to request permission and then waiting weeks before a hearing is scheduled before an order is handed down. If anything, it’s something to consider. 

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