Probation: Common Sense Prison Reform

Posted on February 28, 2011

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Author: Stan Moody

A disconnect is widening between state fiscal responsibility and the revolving door of Corrections. The lion’s share of funds being gobbled up by housing and chronic medical care, it follows that services focused on rehabilitation of prisoners will find it increasingly difficult to be heard in this poor economy.

Across the nation, chaplaincy and prisoner advocacy positions are being cut. Courts are leaning toward deferred disposition and long probation, while state legislatures stiffen minimum sentencing guidelines. Mental health services are under the legislative knife as the federal government shifts more Medicaid responsibility to the states.

Here in Maine, with annual costs of incarceration approaching $50,000 a year per prisoner, the State has achieved temporary relief by seizing control of county jails without assuming fiscal responsibility. Thus, overcrowding at State facilities shifts to the counties. Local communities end up shouldering the financial burden.

At the end of the corrections chain is a last line of defense – the Probation Corp, all that stands between public safety and the corrections budget. Ironically, it has become the last hope for redemption in the corrections cycle. With probation services in Maine at around $3,500 per offender compared with a $50,000 incarceration cost, probation will be the prison reform strategy of choice in Maine and among cash-starved states: Empty them out!

As with staff throughout the criminal justice system, probation officers run the gamut from callous to going the extra mile. It is my privilege to be in contact with a probation office here in Maine staffed by those who seek community involvement at all levels and love their jobs. The liability of being shirttail cousins to security is ironically what keeps them motivated.

I recently received a redacted copy of a letter from a repeat prisoner to his probation officer that demonstrates the critical role that PO’s play in the corrections cycle:

Jim:

I know you had high hopes for me, Jim, and I’m sorry for letting you down. I got very overwhelmed and felt backed into a corner and didn’t know what to do.

I robbed that bank with 2 outcomes in mind. 1.) I’d get away with it and be able to pay rent and all the other bills; 2.) That I’d get caught, go back to prison and be in an environment that was familiar and (as sad as it sounds) easier to cope with; it’s all I’ve known my entire life…I know how to survive here; I don’t know how to do it out there with you all.

I jumped into things way too fast and got overwhelmed. I didn’t know what else to do, Jim. So, here I sit.

The reason I am writing to you, besides apologizing to you for letting you down, is that I wanted to know how I go about apologizing to the bank and the bank teller. My sentencing says that I cannot have any contact with the bank teller, and I really want to say “sorry” to this lady…Do you have any suggestions as to how I go about writing her an apology?

Finally, Jim, can you recommend any programs for me to take while I am here in prison? Any drug programs or other programs to prepare me for the day I get released again?

Thank you, Jim…I hope to hear from you soon. I’m so sorry, again.

What is clear from this letter is that this prisoner has one person whose judgment he can trust. While immersed in a culture where social services are available, the source to which he turns is his probation officer, long since removed from the case.

This “last line of defense” has two pressing needs. The first need is that it be recognized as the critical piece that it is by involving probation officers more closely with court proceedings and providing resources to cut case loads and integrate community services.
The second need is that it be more closely aligned with reentry agendas and services.

When the last dollar is spent, it must be spent on rehabilitation. Successful integration into the community is in the long-term best interest of the public but is a long way from legislative intent, where convicted felons are largely viewed with contempt.

Probation officers stand between a public that has been systematically deluded into thinking that it is in danger from all offenders and a security culture that has successfully sold them on that conclusion in the interest of job security.

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