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Making Overseers into Advocates

A social worker’s take on the misery of probation.

PHILADELPHIA — Every Monday morning it’s the same routine. I get to work and ride on an elevator with a surly dude who looks over at me and groans, “Is it Friday, yet?”

Each day of the week the scene repeats, until Friday, when he says something about how finally it’s Friday, but in a tone that doesn’t make you sense he’s going to get much relief from his weekend.

Later in the morning, after stepping out to grab a coffee, I get on the same elevator, except this time the faces are changed. Now everyone in the elevator is black, or Latin, with maybe a few scattered hard-faced white dudes. None of them is happy.

“Yo, I hate this place, man, I can’t wait to get off.”

“This some bullshit, mother fuckers in here be drawlin’.”

“Five years I been coming down here, man.”

Sometimes you have to step off the elevator before the doors shut and catch another one because you can’t hit any of the buttons. They’re covered in phlegm, from people spitting all over them out of spite.

This is the probation building. Six years I’ve been working here, man.

As a social worker, I’ve always been conflicted about the fact that I work in a law enforcement setting. My desk is situated among probation officers (POs), typically in baby blue polo style shirts with “PROBATION” written across the back. Officers from the court system’s warrant squad come and go, dressed in black commando gear, pants tucked into their boots so they don’t trip when they run (they’re basically always running after people.) I see guns in the office, all the time. It’s a controlled environment; people are searched on their way in, communicate with administrative staff through Plexiglas before getting buzzed into a tiny locked room where they’re separated from their POs by a desktop barrier. Under the desk is a panic button a PO can hit if he needs to call the warrant squad to come grip a dude up and take him into custody. There’s an ad hoc lab on the floor I work on, where every day gallons of urine are collected and sent out for drug testing.

It’s not only not a place conducive to therapeutic interaction, it’s a gloomy, misery-inducing dump absolutely nobody enjoys coming to, POs or probationers. The building is old, falling apart, filled with bugs and mice. The equipment POs work on is almost comically outdated (POs got new computers recently – bringing them up to date from 2004, when the last batch of office PCs had been bought). Just riding the failing elevators is a dice roll, because they frequently stick between floors, or the doors won’t open.

There’s a plan for the office to eventually move into a new, upgraded space, but not because anyone feels the department deserves better digs. In recent years our corner has undergone significant redevelopment, with a rework of the convention center across the street and a luxury hotel with a French name moving into the building next door. One gets the sense that the relocation is less about improving the probation venue than relocating the long line of often heavily tattooed black men that stretches down the block every morning, so tourists won’t have to walk by them on the way to breakfast.

The physical condition of the probation office is critical to understanding what thousands of drug users and sellers experience once they’ve entered the criminal justice system. It’s a space that amplifies hostility. Probationers continually complain about what they feel are probation officers who are abusive, disrespectful, racist or petty power trippers out to wreck your life just to show you they can. Conversely, POs feel underpaid, underappreciated and under constant assault by criminals who would just as soon stab them in the back if they thought they could get away with it. So POs are frequently rigid and stand-offish as they seek to impose control, and probationers are often the same as they seek to resist it. Authority and the anti-authoritarian become locked in a bitter embrace that, based on what I’ve seen over the years, is mutually destructive.

The simple change that would dissolve this toxic bond, which I feel is both necessary and inevitable for creating a just system of community supervision, is to change probation offices from places of control and enforcement to places of support and encouragement. It’s an idea that makes most current probation officers gag, but younger POs are more open to the concept and there are indications that things will go this way whether POs like it or not.

In the most idealistic realm, where the war on drugs gave way to a more progressive paradigm, there would be far fewer petty drug users and sellers in the justice system at the municipal level, but there would still be some. Just as legalizing alcohol did not end alcohol-related crimes, if small quantities of drugs are decriminalized there will still be people who use drugs and break the law in motor vehicles, and there will be drug-users brought to court for other crimes. There would still be drug sellers arrested for possessing weapons or large quantities of drugs. So while now the system supervises too many people who pose no real threat, disproportionately people of color, even with radical changes there would still be a need for supervision.

The goal should be to transform probation officers from overseers into advocates, from rigid authoritarians into compassionate navigators who walk their probationers through the system, offering support, connecting people to needed resources, encouraging them to change and maintain the change that will keep them from returning to the system. Basically, everyone in the probation office should do what I do here as a social worker, except that my caseload is limited to people who have been diverted before going to trial rather than convicted and sent to a PO.

This shift has already begun, handed down through the probation command structure, though the progress so far is infinitesimal and the resistance is potent. POs right now are being required to take online motivational interviewing trainings, a technique drawn from social work practice.. The reactions I’ve heard to this minute shift in culture has been predictable (“Help your probationers identify their goals? He’s a criminal, his only goal is to commit more crimes.”). But I’ve also heard younger POs who are thrilled at the idea of having some role in their probationers’ lives other than being the guy who violates them (“Why wouldn’t I want to help this guy? He’s here, I’m here, and we have to meet, so why shouldn’t I help him out?”)

There are programs in the Philadelphia justice system already, like Forensic Intensive Recovery (FIR) and Intermediate Punishment (IP), that outsource the support and encouragement piece to social workers who meet probationers in the community, leaving enforcement to the PO. The typical FIR probationer is a repeat minor drug offender, such as an addict with a years-long history of possession charges and shoplifting. IP probationers are mid-level drug sellers whose felony charges are too serious to qualify for a drug court or other diversion program. Both groups are referred to drug treatment programs, and provided case management services to assist with job searches, housing resources and other supports.

But this division of labor between supportive case management and probation oversight strikes me as redundant and only necessary because of the absurdly high caseloads your average big-city probation officer carries. Officers often have 100 or more assigned cases, making meaningful interactions difficult if not impossible.

Would public safety suffer if we made support rather than security the focus of probation? In the program I work for, public safety is the job of the district attorney’s office and the judge. They are tasked with monitoring the defendant, leaving me to work on supportive service that in many cases can prevent public safety risk. There is a significant public safety component even without a PO in the picture.

Besides, why shouldn’t even people who have committed serious crimes, who remain a risk to public safety and need to be monitored, at least be monitored by someone who treats them decently and wants to see them change for the better? Not just because the studies all show social support reduces recidivism, but because we believe in treating people with dignity and respect? Something tells me that if we had a probation system staffed by people who were committed to those values, my daily elevator ride would be a very different experience.

Jeff Deeney is a probation social worker in Philadelphia.

This article has 2 letters to the editor. Read the letters.