Probation and parole practices have changed and evolved over the last 20 years. Perhaps one of the most significant evolutions is the concept of not just trying to catch probationers or parolees when they’re breaking the terms of their probation, but rather to also be able to see them doing the “right” things as well.
The question is: how does a busy probation officer with numerous clients accomplish that?
Join us for this recorded webinar, as Michelle Hart and Paul Ventura return to share a four-pronged approach for supervising clients and supporting their positive behavioral changes through:
- office contacts,
- field contacts,
- counseling and treatment
- and the use of alcohol and drug testing.
Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): For a long time, probation and parole officers’ attitudes were centered towards “catching people” doing the wrong thing. How has this changed over the years?
Michelle Hart: The profession of probation has always done its best with what we know. So, “back in the day” it was about punishment. If someone was given a chance on probation, then the focus was on violations, rather than successes. It was responsive rather than proactive. With the onset of evidence-based practices, probation has embraced the concepts of behavior modification, which includes incentivizing desired behaviors. The focus has also shifted to strength-based approaches and inclusion of the clients in decisions about their participation in probation and how they meet the conditions of their probation. This is not to say that accountability has lessened, in fact quite the opposite. Accountability is key in behavior change, but it has to be accompanied with incentives, rapport, and interventions.
Paul Ventura: I think that, as community supervision professionals, we have always used what was offered to us. At points in the past, it has been centered around punishing people for violations of the conditions set by the Court or for any negative behavior. This then began to shift toward the idea that one sanction (revocation) is not appropriate for all negative behaviors and we need to attempt some intermediate sanctions prior to revocation. We have come even further in the past decade with the influx of evidence-based practices. This has shown our profession that starting small and increasing sanctions is much more effective than immediately jumping to the highest form of sanction. We have always understood that accountability is key in the behavior change process, we have just evolved to understanding the best ways to teach accountability. This also helps with dealing with different populations. We now understand that low-risk people and high-risk people should not be dealt with in the same way. Understanding evidence that has been provided to us more recently has greatly attributed to the change in philosophy.
We have always understood that accountability is key in the behavior change process,
we have just evolved to understanding the best ways to teach accountability.
JCH: Why is the first meeting with the new probationer client important?
Michelle Hart: The first meeting is essential. They likely occur right after court or release from custody and both of those experiences can be stressful and possibly have initiated a poor perception of the criminal justice system. The first meeting is the opportunity to begin building rapport, setting expectations for both the client and the officer, explaining the process and asking the client their goals. The first meeting helps to also dispel any preconceived notions one might have regarding probation and introduce them to the partnership the client will be embarking on with their probation officer and their journey through probation.
Paul Ventura: First impressions have always been important and, in the probation and parole field where rapport is so essential to behavior change, it is extremely important. Going into the first meeting with a probationer, the officer should understand that they may have had negative interaction with law enforcement in the past, just came from Court or jail and that their perception of the process of supervision may not be the best. Using this first interaction to set the tone for the entire supervision time period can assist in addressing negative behavior in the future and clearing up misconceptions about probation/parole. If the probationer/client feels that they have a rapport with the supervising officer, they will be more likely to engage in behavior change. There are always outliers that will not engage no matter what is done, but it is best practice to use this first meeting to explain everything that will be required and engaging the probationer/client in the conversation. This would also be the time to begin speaking about goals that both parties hope to accomplish and using that for case planning.
One thing to always remember is that honesty and being straight-forward with our clientele is key.
They are definitely experts in knowing
if someone is lying to them or misleading them in any way.
JCH: How can this relationship be re-established with a client – even after years of probation supervision?
Michelle Hart: In short, honesty and humility. This is a perfect opportunity for an officer to role model these two values. If there is a reason the relationship between a PO and his/her client has not been the greatest or most productive, the probation officer must acknowledge his/her part without muddling it with excuses or placing blame of outside of themselves. POs are just as human as the clients we serve and not all things are perfect, but we can own our behavior and move forward. Just as we expect clients to do.
In a transfer of POs situation, depending on the reason, it should be explained to the client and the new supervising officer would then complete an introduction just like he/she would with a brand new client. Establishing rapport, expectations and identifying goals.
Paul Ventura: This is a great question and one that I have been asked a lot recently with the number of new officers my department has hired who are taking over established caseloads. One thing to always remember is that honesty and being straight-forward with our clientele is key. They are definitely experts in knowing if someone is lying to them or misleading them in any way. Even if someone has been on probation for a long time with another officer and you are new to the caseload (or an officer is attempting to re-establish rapport or engage someone in behavior change), they can utilize evidence-based practices to establish a baseline for their relationship. If it is a new officer, they can use active listening to hear what the probationer/client has to say about their experience so far and affirm that they will be working together to work toward positive goals in the future. They can do this by explaining the roles of each person involved in the process (the PO role, probationer, Judge, treatment, etc). This reminds the probationer that each person has a part to play and what is expected (expectations are key). It is ok to acknowledge if these expectations have not been met by any of the participants, but focus on how to rectify that going forward and not harping on past mistakes.
If it is the same officer attempting to re-establish rapport, it is ok to admit making a mistake in the past and wanting to fix the relationship going forward. This doesn’t mean taking accountability away from the probationer, but to the contrary, by taking accountability for our own mistakes, we can continue to push the probationer to take accountability for their actions. I am not saying this will be “fixed” in one meeting (It may take time and several meetings), but a focused effort on establishing lost boundaries and expectations will lead to behavior change or understanding if someone is not truly engaged in making changes. This is really a question that could take an entire webinar to answer and is complex.
With the onset of evidence-based practices,
probation has embraced the concepts of behavior modification,
which includes incentivizing desired behaviors.
JCH: You both are seasoned probation officials… what do you wish you would have known about supervising probationers when you first started out, that you know now?
Michelle Hart: So much has evolved over the 24 years I have been a probation officer. I am not sure that I can pinpoint one thing to truly answer that question. I believe if someone became a PO it was because of a desire to help. That was and still is my motive for what I do. I have done my best with the tools I have had each step of the way. As new research and programs are implemented, I have learned and changed how I do business. With probation, I have evolved. The problem comes when POs are set in their ways and don’t want to learn the next best thing and prefer to continue to do things as they have always been done, and not recognizing a need for change.
With that said, I would have to say that it is OK to have a heart in this work. When I started as a probation officer, I was told that it is not OK to allow clients to know personal details and to keep the relationship very sterile, for lack of a better word. That is not who I am at all and I think that the changes in how we do business have allowed POs to be human in the eyes of our clients. We have to be! How else do you demonstrate empathy or build a relationship with trust?
The problem comes when POs are set in their ways
and don’t want to learn the next best thing and
prefer to continue to do things as they have always been done,
and not recognizing a need for change.
Paul Ventura: My co-presenter and first partner, Michelle Hart, has more experience than I do and has seen even more of an evolution of this profession than I have. She was also my first teacher when I became a PO 12 years ago. The first thing she impressed upon me was to be myself, be humble, understand where our clientele is coming from and not to think I have to change to be like an experienced officer who has been doing the job for 25 years. She told me that I could be a better PO than them at 1 year on if I adhere to what brought me to the field to begin with: wanting to help people and help my community.
Even in 12 years, I have seen changes in our field. To say that there is one thing that I did back then that I would like to change now is difficult. One thing that I have done was look back at notes from difficult cases that I have worked on and think about how I would do things different with what I know now. One thing that stands out is making decisions that were totally based on whatever stress or workload I had at the time. What I mean by this is that I have learned how to continue to take on more work and use time management to help me have success. Right now, I am engaged in many facets of my department that I was not at the beginning of my career, while still supervising a high-risk offender caseload. Using time management skills and learning to separate my “off-time” from my “work time,” I have been able to take on more responsibility and workload without adding more stress. I am not saying that I never feel overwhelmed. I do! It is how I deal with that feeling that has changed. If asked, my co-workers would say that I never looked stressed or overwhelmed with what I am dealing with. That is half the battle. Then using my time effectively assists in being successful. This is not something that is learned once an then you will be good at it forever. You have to continue to work on it and adjust to what is happening.
The other thing that I had a problem with was always saying “yes” when asked to help with a project or assist another officer. Learning to use the words “no, I can’t at this time” has helped me to address this issue. Many times, when that is said, the other person will adjust to still get your help with whatever it is, so that you can still accomplish what is necessary.