Last Updated 23 Nov 2022

The Mission of Probation and Parole

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The mission of probation and parole is to protect the community by supervising offenders and reporting non-compliance to the appropriate sentencing or releasing authority. Parole and probation officers supervise hundreds of thousands of felons nationwide. This research examines how the role of probation and parole has changed the current organizational problems of the probation and parole systems. Critical issues to be addressed include the legal environment of officer decision-making, parole boards and sentencing authorities, and efficiency of services.

Focusing on Florida, under statute, the Department of Corrections is to protect the public; provide a safe and humane environment for staff and offenders; work in partnership with the  to provide programs and services to offenders; and supervise offenders at a level of security commensurate with the dangers they present (Florida Department of Corrections, 1992). These responsibilities pose immense challenges for probation officers and corrections administration, as well as the criminal justice system as a whole. To make a significant impact on these issues, the correctional system must make some major changes in how criminal justice is allocated. As the number of crimes committed continues to increase, the courts are losing their effectiveness in deterring crime by leveling quick, stiff sentences.

At the same time, correctional instructions are dealing with overcrowding. To deal with this issue institutions are admitting these offenders today and releasing them tomorrow to relive the overcrowding. A report in USA Today (1991) stated: probation departments have become seriously under-staffed just as they are being relied upon more heavily than at any point in history; probation, rather than prison, is the most prevalent form of punishment. Probation officers have become less and less involved in their traditional role, more kin to social work and are more consumed with law enforcement, tracking down those who have violated the terms of freedom. (p. 10A) Despite a tremendous increase in the number of institutional facilities, an unprecedented number of offenders has been placed under supervision in the community.

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The Florida Department of Corrections has more than 100,000 felony offenders under supervision throughout the state. If correctional institutions were not overcrowded many of these offenders would be serving time versus being released on probation or parole. The caseload standards for probation and parole should be viewed as the first step in a process that involves a thorough review and analysis of each agency’s individual workload, resources and policies. The American Probation and Parole Association (APPA) has struggled for some time with the question of the ideal caseload size for probation and parole officers (PPO). That struggle was first documented in an issue paper developed by APPA in the early 1990s.

The issue remains difficult to resolve and critically important to the field of community corrections. The question of “what is the ideal caseload size?” has critical implications for the staffing levels of probation and parole agencies across the country. Absent any definitive national professional standards, ideally backed up by empirical research, policy-makers and funding bodies are left to muddle through the decisions about resource levels. Some probation and parole agencies have had success with the development and deployment of workload models and weighted caseload formulae, but for the most part staffing decisions for community corrections agencies are made in a relative vacuum of reliable direction as to the right or appropriate level of staffing.

As a result, average caseloads in many jurisdictions are larger, often much larger than experienced professionals would recommend. This seems like an easy issue to address however, the landscape of community corrections quite complex. The diversity of size, structure, geographical area covered, organization and clientele that characterizes probation and parole in the United States makes it very difficult to make definitive statements or recommendations that will apply to all, or even to a majority of the agencies. While probation and parole agencies use the same basic terminology and general practices, there are key differences that produce significant variations. These differences include, that not all offenders are alike. They vary in their age, gender, offense seriousness, risk factors and service needs.

Also, not all court and probation/parole orders are the same. Judges and releasing authorities vary widely in terms of the conditions they place on offenders, in terms of the number, complexity and workload demands the conditions place on the supervising officer. Lastly not all jurisdictions are the same. The statutory, political and policy environments of the hundreds of jurisdictions that provide probation and parole services vary greatly. The impact of these jurisdictional variations can have significant impact on the work of the probation/parole officers. Based on all of the above factors, the case plan and supervision strategy for a given offender can vary significantly from one department to the next. As a result, it is difficult to prescribe an ideal caseload size that will apply broadly across the field of community corrections.

However, the difficulty of this challenge should not deter the APPA from addressing it. Absent recommendations or guidance from the professional organization representing probation and parole practitioners, decisions about the allocation of resources to community corrections are left to the vagaries of the political and budget processes at the local, county, state and tribal levels. Law enforcement, the judiciary system, the correctional system, and probation and parole all share equal responsibility for the deterioration of the criminal justice system. To resolve these issues, much of what we do and how we do it will need to change. Probation is considerably cheaper than incarceration, particularly when the benefits of allowing the offender to remain in the community are added in.

There are problems with the available cost benefit research, however, because cost/benefit analyses are time-consuming and methodologically demanding. In addition, we might bear in mind that it is unlikely in the near future that cost/benefit analyses will be able to measure the risk or threat which may be posed to the county by the presence of an offender placed on probation. In 2004, Hawaii was one of the experimental states along with California, and several others to take on this challenge by creating the HOPE program. The HOPE program, created by Federal Judge Steven Alm, and which stands for “Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement” is a pilot program aimed to reduce probation violations by drug offenders and others at high risk of recidivism. This high-intensity supervision program is the first and only of its kind in the nation.

Probationers in HOPE program receive swift, predictable, and immediate sanctions, typically resulting in several days in jail for each detected violation, such as drug use or missed appointments with their probation officer. An initial examination of the new probation model was promising enough to prompt multiple evaluations of the HOPE program, including three studies funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). Hawaii HOPE’s probation supervision model gives a swift and commensurate sanction for each probation violation. Probation, as has traditionally been implemented, usually allows probation violations to accumulate since there are few sanction alternatives available to probation officers and judges apart from a probation revocation. Once the probationer accumulates enough violations to forfeit probation, the probationer usually is sent to serve the original prescribed prison sentence.

HOPE, on the other hand, involves delivering an immediate, measured and proportionate sanction for each violation as it occurs. Each probationer entering HOPE is made aware of the program expectations, including that there will be an immediate consequence for every violation. In 2011, NIJ funded a study to examine a possible long-term effect of Hawaii HOPE on probationers. An analysis of 76 months of administrative data shows that HOPE’s two most important results are that it reduces crime, and it reduces the number of people in prison. More than a dozen states are now experimenting with pilot programs based on HOPE. Last June, legislators in Washington decided to enshrine “swift and certain” as law, immediately applying it to 70 percent of the state’s 15,000 offenders.

In a recent essay, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens used the word “disturbing” to describe the system’s severity. HOPE offers something for everyone: Liberals like it because it reduces time behind bars; conservatives like it because it strikes a no-tolerance attitude toward law-breaking; offenders like it because, compared with the normal system, it seems fair and consistent; and everyone can like it because it can potentially reduce the amount of money we spend putting and keeping Americans behind bars. It offers another great benefit for everyone: It dramatically reduces crime. The results of the HOPE also confirm that there is a requirement collaboration needed among the courts, law enforcement, jail and probation staff. In addition, the larger structure of probation relative to the other criminal justice system components impacts the success of these partnerships.

Although the HOPE demonstration sites sought to create uniformity in judges’ decision- making for sanctions, judges retain discretion, and the HOPE probation model does not replace that. To date, the various triggers that prompt a probation revocation are unknown. the HOPE model standardizes, to the extent possible, how probation should be administered. The results will provide community corrections practitioners’ insight into promising practices that would reduce probation violations and recidivism. It will also suggest to policymakers how they can best adapt promising programs from other jurisdictions. Historically, most probation agencies were relatively small, and the administrative world of probation was fractionalized, resulting in a reliance by administrators on the traditional management strategies and techniques borrowed from business administration and other doctrines.

In the past few years, there has been a noticeable emphasis in the literature on the treatment of management concerns and innovative strategies as an integral part of the probation function. The organizational and management issues which are discussed in this paper are important to administrators for several reasons. First off, probation administrators want to perform their jobs as efficiently and effectively as possible. Although we assume that most administrators are familiar with fundamental management concepts and techniques, there are a number of management concerns which are especially relevant to the areas of corrections in general and probation in particular. In order to carry out their functions in an efficient and effective manner, administrators will want to be fully informed and knowledgeable about organization and management problems, and their possible solutions which affect the smooth running of a probation agency.

Secondly, there may be a number of areas in which flexibility is denied to the administrator by law. These areas may include the selection of probation officers, the decision to grant, deny, or revoke probation, the required performance of presentence investigations, the length of the probation period, the various rights of due process guaranteed to probationers, and the use of certain treatment modalities. Most of the areas of management, however, allow the administrator some maneuverability and the ability to make choices based upon the probable contribution of a certain technique to the efficient or effective management of the probation agency. Finally, management concerns can be a fruitful area for innovation. The examples of management techniques which we discuss may be untried by many probation agencies, and thus the experiences of other departments may be of considerable value to the administrator who is contemplating changing or modifying an existing technique or adopting a new one.

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