Wow, are you really retired? People ask me with amazement and curiosity. In all honesty I reply it’s still unbelievable to me too. They ask what it was like working with people previously incarcerated who were returning home. I thought to myself for a minute; I’ve always known that I didn’t want to work within a jail and/or prison. I had heard early on about community corrections and had learned that it included any sanctions in which offenders serve all or a portion of their sentence in the community. For me, working in the field of community corrections was the most rewarding opportunity I’ve ever had.
Working within the profession of community corrections had been a unique experience. It had been challenging at times; however, it allowed me to perform an array of duties related to public safety, human services, law enforcement and developing community partnerships for reentry efforts across the State. I found that fulfilling my role as a parole officer often called for my being multi-faceted in my approach to the job. Being a probation and/or parole officer requires good time management and communication skills. It also requires the ability to perform critical thinking and display the ability to work well professionally with others.
I’ve always believed that there is a perfect and harmonious balance between performing social work and the duties of a probation/parole officer. I’ve had the opportunity to be a social worker for the Division of Youth and Family Services (New Jersey’s child protection and child welfare agency), then transitioned to become a probation officer for seven years, followed by becoming a parole officer for fourteen years. For me it has not been a matter of being fifty percent social work and/or fifty percent law enforcement. Rather, it has been a matter of developing a set of skills that combines both and requires being 100 percent ready for whatever the supervision situation requires.
Understanding the concept of being a “change agent” had been a large part of performing my duties in the field of community corrections. As a newly hired community supervision officer, not clearly understanding the practical aspect of my duties was a contributing factor towards stress on the job. It appeared that being a parole officer had a duality in its purpose that could be viewed as conflicting. I learned to become comfortable in making decisions concerning another’s life; decisions and recommendations which would ultimately impact the freedom of the individual. Additionally, I was also responsible for providing case management which provided supportive services (directly or through referrals) intended to improve the likelihood of the individual remaining within the community. The two issues I was experiencing are known as “role ambiguity” and “role conflict”. In addition, to me experiencing the initial ambiguity and role conflict, I was often frustrated when hearing others use the terms interchangeably. As a parole officer I had to become very clear and concise in explaining the similarities of the two and in articulating the significant differences. I learned to fluently express the responsibility of monitoring an offender’s progress in the reentry process included returning the individual to custody for failure to comply with the conditions of his/her parole release, and also included assisting him/her in navigating the barrage of resources in the community to find those which were required for his/her rehabilitation. The ability to do both and remain fair and consistent was critical and needed to be mastered.
As the years progressed, I could not just follow a “one-size fits all” approach to supervision. As a parole officer, I began to identify specific difficulty within the reentry supervision process for women, and I sought to bring about a solution to meeting those needs. In an effort to investigate the benefits of gender responsive supervision, I designed a strategy which incorporated the simultaneous use of a gender specific caseload, along with gender responsive treatment and services delivered by community partners. The strategy included recommended practices by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) and other well known researchers which are used when working with women involved with the criminal justice system. In 2004 my agency approved a pilot location for this approach, and the coalition of partners and stakeholders involved became known as the Female Offender Reentry Group Effort (FORGE). The overall goal of this strategy was to improve the reentry outcomes for women offenders involved in the reentry process in New Jersey in an effort to reduce recidivism.
As it relates to public safety and the accountability issues of these women to the criminal justice system, I learned that being more responsive to gender was beneficial to improved outcomes for the individuals on my caseload. As a result FORGE was implemented in various counties across the state and received national attention. As of this date, the FORGE strategy continues to be used by contracted and community providers to assist the women under parole supervision in the State.
Assisting the agency I worked for and the community-at-large with increasing their capacity and knowledge of the reentry risks and needs of women offenders, was for me in my last ten years, very rewarding and also fulfilling as a parole officer. By this time I understood clearly that there was no conflict of interest in what I was doing. The responsibility of a community corrections officer to address the accountability of individuals involved with the criminal justice system and provide public safety is expected. However, the opportunity to be a change agent for not only the offender, but also the criminal justice system ……..for me was priceless.
Finally, being a member of professional organizations such as the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA) and the American Corrections Association (ACA) allows an individual to remain knowledgeable of new developments within the field as well as to personally build a strong network among colleagues nationwide. This network consists of individuals with the similar challenges, passions, and rewards in a field that is ever changing. Being a community correction’s professional is being a member of a field that is becoming more evidence-based and effective in its relevancy to today’s world and specifically to the needs of the criminal justice system. As for me, it is being a “change agent” for your community and the members within it that makes all the difference in a career.