Strategies for writing effective probation reports
Dedication to your work is important, but you also must be OK with cutting the cord, filing the report and moving on
December 2018. I’m working the last of a handful of back-to-back homicide cases I was assigned, one of which involves two former juvenile probation clients I was familiar with. I saw them grow up from 14, 15 years old, only to wind up sentenced to life without parole. I felt like the system failed them. Now, facing me is a report on a triple homicide, the circumstances of which were heartbreaking. And it’s a week before Christmas. To say I’m emotionally invested is an understatement. But I know my report must be accurate, thorough and logical.
Reports may be considered the lifeblood of probation. As someone works their way through the criminal justice system, numerous decisions must be made: When will sentencing take place? Does a certain activity violate their terms of release? Is a home visit appropriate? A search? With a juvenile, which system – child welfare services or probation – should take precedence?
Reports provide both the impetus to think through these decisions and the documentation of the reasoning behind them. Accuracy is essential; conciseness is critical. Yet too often, probation reports get rushed, buried under voluminous caseloads and demanding deadlines. Often a sloppy or incomplete report is simply embarrassing or cause for a supervisor’s disapproval. But the consequences can be dire, too – a failed opportunity to help a client manage a drug addiction, or missing the warning signs that a sex offender is participating in dangerous behavior that endangers the community.
Types of Probation Reports
Probation officers author many types of reports. Perhaps the most comprehensive is the presentence investigation report, which typically involves a complete biographic, demographic and social history of the defendant, as well as an overview of the offense(s) he or she is being sentenced for. The report may also include a complex sentencing analysis, that requires hours of review and a discussion/examination of applicable sentencing and case law, which is then included in the recommendation to the court.
For this report, the probation officer will review and evaluate the client’s criminal history, including juvenile arrest and adjudication records if appropriate, and consider aggravating and mitigating circumstances regarding the defendant and the crime(s) he or she has been convicted of. They will also document the offender’s physical and mental health needs, employment and education history, military records and community ties. The officer may also use a risk and needs assessment tool to try to predict the level of risk the offender poses to re-offend. The presentence investigation report is critical, as it will set the conditions for the offender’s release and supervision, sometimes for years to come.
Some other probation reports tend to be shorter and include:
- Referral reports: Courts frequently ask for status updates on offenders or for credit calculations to calculate jail time served/credits earned.
- Specialty court program status updates: Offenders serving sentences through mental health courts, veterans courts, domestic violence courts and substance abuse courts often require biweekly or monthly status updates to document their compliance with the terms of their probation.
- Arrest reports: Probation officers must sometimes arrest offenders for violating the conditions of probation or for new criminal activity, sometimes unveiled during home visits, field and/or office contacts. Arrests of a probation client require a report just like any arrest.
- Incident reports: Anytime something is out of the ordinary, the probation officer should document it. For example, a victim may accuse a probationer of continuing to harass him or her, even though a restraining order is in place. In this case, the probation officer must document what happened, refer the incident to local law enforcement and determine if filing a violation of probation with the court is warranted.
Where Reports Go Bad
Probation reports can suffer from the same errors that plague any type of writing, ranging from minor to serious. Spelling, grammar and formatting errors creep in easily, and while they may seem minor, they can have a significant impact on how the report is regarded or even contribute to misinterpretations by the courts, attorneys and others. Serious defects in report writing include missing, inaccurate or poorly documented information.
Most probation report shortcomings aren’t the result of uneducated officers or officers who are just plain bad writers. Rather, they result from a lack of time. Officers pressed for time may feel they can’t do a second review on the report, so they skip the essential proofread and edit stages.
Time constraints are part of the very nature of probation. You may be a field supervision officer who gets assigned a report for training purposes, but then you also get an overflow report. Then, a probationer you know well requires a report, so it gets assigned to you. Before long, you can be fielding several reports at the same time.
Adding to the volume is the short turnaround time we often face from courts. Probation officers are frequently tasked with conducting pretrial assessments through arraignment courts – would the subject be a good candidate for pretrial release and supervision? With/without GPS monitoring? A probation officer may be juggling several referrals from arraignment court, each of which requires interviewing the inmate, contacting victims and verifying references – all within one to two days’ turnaround time, or less.
Facing set timeframes from the courts and dealing with a high volume of reports, we’re not always afforded enough time to do a thorough investigation. And sometimes it shows.
Strategies for Writing Better Reports
Report writing will always be one of the more challenging aspects of the probation officer’s job, but there are strategies to make it easier. Perhaps the most important is to keep a detailed, up-to-date calendar. As soon as you get a case referred for a report, enter it into whatever calendar you use, whether it’s a paper planner/calendar, Outlook or Google. Plug in the date you received the referral, the date the report is due to file and the date due to supervisor for review. This will help you prioritize reports so you’re not waiting until the last minute to start, and you won’t miss crucial deadlines.
In any type of investigation, time management is critical. Know your judicial timeframes. Do you have 48 hours to get the subject before a judge, or do you have 72 hours? Remember the clock starts with arrest, not booking time. Knowing and managing those parameters will reduce the chances you feel rushed when writing the report.
Other tips include:
- When you’re done with the draft of your report, put it down and walk away from it. Separate yourself from it before you proofread and edit, even if it’s just for a few minutes.
- Print the report and if possible, read it out loud. Our brains are great at filling in missing information and correcting grammatical errors, which are even more difficult to see on a computer screen. Printing and reading aloud can reveal errors you’ll miss whenever you’re reading the report on your computer. Reading the report aloud is great for revealing awkward syntax, inappropriate or unprofessional tone, and overreliance on passive voice.
- Get another officer to review your report. Peer review is a fundamental step in probation report writing, but too often it falls victim to the time crunch. Try to get in the habit of swapping reports with a colleague you trust. It’s so much easier to take feedback from a peer than a supervisor. While it may require a little more time on the front end, this step will reduce rewrite requests, saving you time in the long run.
- When starting an assignment with a new supervisor, ask your new supervisor about their preferred style for reports and whether they can share examples of reports they consider exemplary. Adjusting to a new supervisor’s style can be frustrating, but much less so if you determine what adjustments you may need to make, rather than figuring it out through a series of rewrite requests over the first few weeks. Also, ask your supervisor to provide feedback that indicates not just what to change, but why, so you can cut down on the back-and-forth and avoid making the same mistakes again.
Let It Go
Probation officers are accountable for writing accurate and thorough reports. But in the end, the best advice I can give is to remember that you don’t own the work. Ultimately, a probation report is not yours. You contributed to authoring it, but it belongs to your agency.
Understanding this is key to creating emotional separation with your work – and with the case. When you invest a lot of emotional effort into a project or task, it’s so much more difficult to step back and feel good about it. Dedication to your work is important, but you also must be OK with cutting the cord, filing the report and moving on. Because there’s another report waiting, and it needs your attention, too.
So what did I do as Christmas drew near and I dealt with the impact of multiple back-to-back homicide cases? Uncharacteristically, I waited until the day before the report was due to write and submit it. I knew I had to separate from the case for a few days to allow my brain to engage on an analytic level. Although I would have preferred not to wait, giving myself time away from the case allowed me to prevent my emotions from taking over. I wrote the best report I could, proofread it, read it out loud, had a colleague and my supervisor review it and filed it.
And then, I took a deep breath, and let it go.