Professional Lives of Community Corrections Officers: The Invisible Side of Reentry

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Faith E. Lutze

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    Preface: Community Corrections Officers: The Invisible Side of Reentry

    Community corrections is a unique profession that possesses the coercive power of the criminal justice system to manage offenders' risk and garners the power of the helping professions to address offenders' needs. Parole officers, also known as community corrections officers (CCOs), reside at the nexus between prison and the community. Their work is multifaceted, involving offenders, the police, courts, prisons, social services, public health, education, labor, and the community. Their professional knowledge is extensive and is often used to bridge the gaps in offender management between the formal institutions tasked with managing offenders' behavior and the informal systems of control and support provided by the community. Community corrections officers have the expertise to create a continuum of care for offenders that provides continuity across systems to effectively manage risk, reduce recidivism, achieve long-term reintegration, and enhance public safety. Due to their position strategically located at the end of the criminal justice process and in the community, community corrections officers are fully poised to orchestrate the successful reintegration of ex-offenders into the community.

    Unfortunately, community corrections is rarely highlighted as an important resource to proactively achieve public safety. It is continuously viewed in the shadow of prisons, seen as “less” than law enforcement, and maligned for being too much like social work. In spite of the fact that community corrections is responsible for supervising the release of approximately 750,000 inmates from prison each year in the United States, a population that has grown 3.6 times that experienced in the 1980s, it remains a profession easily blamed by policymakers for the failures that should be attributed to the entire criminal justice system as well as other public institutions.

    It is clear that many of the traditional approaches to reentry in an era resulting in mass incarceration have not been very successful. The likelihood of those released from prison to fail has remained stubbornly consistent over time with approximately 65% being returned to prison within 3 years after release and at least a third of these failing within the first 6 months. To address this failure, policymakers often turn to more of the same by designing tougher laws and investing more in prisons, police, and courts. When attention is paid to community corrections it is often in reaction to a rare, heinous event committed by an offender on supervision. These events often result in reactionary policies that further restrict the discretion of officers or serve to increase their responsibilities by enhancing their coercive control and power over offenders through such strategies as intensive supervision, electronic monitoring, and other intermediate sanctions. Even when reentry initiatives encompass more holistic approaches, the focus is often on addressing offenders' needs or reorganizing systems to coordinate services across providers and not about directly investing in community corrections officers. Although providing for the needs of offenders and coordinating services are extremely worthy of investment, little consideration is given to whether community corrections officers have the support, resources, and expertise required to effectively manage the complex combination of risks and needs of offenders or the opportunity to collaborate with professionals in other agencies. Even when the need for systemic change is evident, either by managing risks or needs, CCOs are consistently asked to do more with less.

    Regardless of what policymakers and correctional leaders do, CCOs have little choice but to deal with the reality of offenders' lives and the importance of safely reintegrating them into the community to prevent future harm. To be successful they cannot afford to work in isolation because the risks and needs of offenders are too great to ignore. Thus, CCOs work across the criminal justice system by using the police, courts, jails, and prison to manage risk, problem-solve threats to community safety, and coordinate successful outcomes. To address the multiple needs of offenders they must engender the expertise and resources available through social services, public health, education, and labor to arrange the services necessary to address serious issues such as homelessness, mental illness, substance abuse, educational and skill deficits, unemployment, and a multitude of other stressors due to living in poverty. Their position, located in the community, allows them to create opportunities for offenders through building relationships with community stakeholders essential to offenders' ability to develop prosocial relationships, become reunited with family and friends, obtain employment, establish a stable and safe place to live, and work toward long-term freedom from state control. It is clear that community corrections officers' jobs are important to achieving the goals not just of corrections but of the entire criminal justice system.

    This book brings the important work of community corrections officers out of the shadows of the prison and into the light of informed policymaking based on the reality of community corrections officers' work and their importance to the success of the criminal justice system. I argue that community corrections officers are “street-level boundary spanners” who are in the best position to lead effective reentry initiatives built on interagency collaboration and a shared responsibility for reentry. In general, boundary spanners are people able to permeate the borders between diverse professions to create a mutual understanding of the other's role and through shared communication, work to fill gaps in service, build trust, remove service barriers, and create the conditions necessary to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. The criminal justice system alone cannot be solely responsible for assuring public safety when the risks and needs of offenders returning to the community from prison are so great. Therefore, community corrections' power and utility are based in its ability to provide a fluid response to reentry inclusive of control, support, and treatment—a response led by community corrections officers.

    I refer to those commonly called “parole officers” as community corrections officers. This distinction is important for several reasons. First, parole, or early release from prison, is what happens to offenders and refers to a mechanism of release. Using the term parole officer binds the concept of community supervision officers to the prison instead of to the community where they work and ex-offenders live. Second, tying community supervision to the prison inspires policies and strategies that become perceived as mere extensions of the prison, a place where offenders can be quickly and easily returned, instead of being based in the community where emphasis is placed on looking forward toward achieving long-term reintegration. Finally, the term community corrections officer captures the significance of two of the most important responsibilities community corrections is tasked with: (1) the use of coercive power to effectively manage ex-offenders' needs and the risk they pose to the community and (2) their responsibility to enhance public safety by working in collaboration with the community to achieve long-term reintegration. Community corrections is about engaging both people and places. Its success is interdependent and involves the well-being of the “community” to work with “corrections” to assist both CCOs and offenders to manage risks and address needs. Although this book focuses on reentry and therefore the work of “parole” officers, I believe the roles and responsibilities of probation and parole officers overlap, and many of the most serious issues (e.g., large caseloads, safety, offender attributes, professional orientation, community conditions) are shared across all of those who work in community corrections. Therefore, it is my hope that this book is used to educate and inform students and professionals interested in both probation and parole specifically and community corrections generally.

    As research on community corrections officers has grown into a large and varied endeavor, there are few, if any, holistic contemporary reviews of CCOs and how they actually go about their work. Reviews of probation and parole officers are generally relegated to a few chapters within books covering the entire system of probation and parole. Or they are studied in direct relationship to the outcomes of a specific supervision strategy or intervention designed to better manage offender outcomes. Unlike studies of other professional roles in the criminal justice system, there are few in-depth qualitative or participant observation studies exploring community corrections officers' professional culture, beliefs, philosophy, or satisfaction with their work. This book hopes to remedy the shortcomings of the existing literature on both accounts by bringing the research on community corrections officers together in one place and filling in the gaps in research with the findings of a qualitative case study based on interviews with 42 community corrections officers supervising active caseloads in Spokane, Washington. Given that Spokane is a midsized metropolitan area (City of Spokane: 208,000 people; Spokane County: 470,000 people; U.S. Census Bureau 2010) experiencing many of the same challenges as similarly situated cities throughout the United States, the experiences and perceptions of the Spokane CCOs will resonate with other community corrections officers across the country.1

    The Spokane study2 is used in this book in two primary ways. First, the interviews are used as real-life examples supporting the findings provided in survey research conducted across the country and, when relevant, internationally. In this way, the Spokane study becomes a conduit to highlighting how the findings from multiple studies may appear in real life for CCOs supervising offenders in the field. Second, the Spokane study is used to fill in the gaps in research where little is known about community corrections officers in the broader research literature. When I began this book, I thought the Spokane study interviews would only be used to illustrate the importance of the findings of other studies. When I further explored the existing research on community corrections officers I learned there were still many gaps in the research regarding CCOs and the contextual aspects of their work. For example, little has been published from CCOs' perspective about their beliefs concerning working with and building professional relationships with offenders, their beliefs about the communities where offenders live and whether they desire to work with community stakeholders, their concerns about the effectiveness of their own agencies to support their work, and finally their thoughts about collaboration and working with other agencies to manage offender risks and needs. Thus, I believe the Spokane study is important primarily because it brings to life what at times can be abstract, emotionless statistics, and it fills some important gaps in the literature about community corrections officers.

    It is from an extensive review of the research dedicated to learning more about CCOs and from the Spokane interviews that it became clear that community corrections, in spite of its importance to the overall success of the system and offenders, remains an invisible profession. Its utility to enhance public safety is totally missed by many policymakers and, too often, corrections leaders. To envision how to effectively empower community corrections officers' position requires a holistic understanding of their professional roles, including their relationships with offenders, their work within the community, their place within their agencies, how and when they use evidence-based practices, and the extent of their collaboration with other institutions. It is only within this broader understanding that one can fully and effectively invest in community corrections and value its boundary-spanning capacity to effect positive change.

    Therefore, Chapter 1 provides a brief review of the history, mission, and responsibilities of community corrections. The challenges confronting community corrections are extensive. The contemporary political and social movement to become more punitive has driven prison populations to a level of mass incarceration that has seriously burdened our communities at all levels to great financial and human costs. The responsibility for managing such a large prison and community corrections population has seriously stressed our institutions' effectiveness. In addition, the fact that poverty is the most common attribute shared by those in our criminal justice system, and especially corrections, it cannot be easily ignored. The effect of poverty poses serious challenges to CCOs, offenders, and communities to provide what is necessary to achieve successful reentry. It is important to understand the social, political, and economic context of community corrections in order to appreciate the setting in which CCOs are expected to function. Without understanding this broader context, one is likely to set unrealistic expectations for CCOs and offenders to be successful, fail to provide support where it is most needed, and narrowly define the role of CCOs in ways that professionally isolate them and oversimplify their relevance to the success of the criminal justice system.

    Chapter 2 reviews how the professional lives of CCOs have been traditionally placed on a continuum with surveillance and crime control at one end and assistance and rehabilitation on the other. This bifurcated view of CCO roles is far too limiting, and a review of the research shows that a fluid approach to supervision is most effective. Those who are most successful in improving compliance to supervision and reducing recidivism balance both surveillance and assistance through a dynamic approach to supervision. CCOs clearly recognize the complexity of offenders' lives and the importance of addressing their risks and needs. They also value the professional relationships they build with offenders and expect a mutual exchange of trust and respect to guide their ongoing interactions. Unfortunately, many challenges confront CCOs in accomplishing their professional goals as they are at times challenged by their peers, court-ordered conditions that conflict with the reality of offenders' lives, departmental policies that at times limit their discretion or burden them with administrative tasks that impinge on their time with offenders, and the structural limitations caused by the responsibility of managing excessively large caseloads.

    Chapter 3 considers how CCOs' relationships span beyond the individual needs of the offender to the needs of the community and how the community can enhance the likelihood of an offender's success. Although supervision outside of an institutional setting is labeled “community corrections,” the focus tends to be on individual offender characteristics and CCOs' responsibilities, with little consideration for how corrections is also about “place.” Very little is known about what CCOs think about the communities they serve, whether CCOs want to work more closely with citizens, and whether they view the places where offenders and their families live as assets or liabilities to their work. This chapter relies heavily on the Spokane interviews to explore how community corrections agencies attempt to become more visible and involved in the community by building partnerships with local groups and engaging offenders, their families, and stakeholders within the community. CCOs appear to have very complex views about the community relevant to further exploring the importance of viewing CCOs as boundary spanners.

    After establishing how CCOs work with offenders and the community, Chapter 4 shifts to how CCOs' professional lives transpire within their own agency. Research shows that the structure of organizations directly influences their employees' experiences and how they work to achieve their intended mission. CCOs conscientiously work to balance their responsibility to the agency by following policy with their responsibility to offenders by being responsive to offenders' risks and needs. Oftentimes bureaucratic challenges such as liability, safety, sensational cases, conflicting missions and goals, and administrative policies merge to create stress for CCOs. It is clear that community corrections organizations need to be structured and administered to achieve success and can no longer be passive participants in offender management and reform. It is the professionalization of the agency to achieve success that provides the foundation for CCOs to be effective boundary spanners with the ability to directly improve correctional outcomes that result in safer communities.

    Importantly, Chapter 5 builds on the previous chapter by exploring “what works” in community corrections and how community corrections must be built on a foundation of evidence-based practices, program integrity, and quality assurances. The movement to use research to inform practice has resulted in a significant expansion of our knowledge concerning effective supervision strategies and treatment interventions that reduce recidivism and enhance successful outcomes. Understanding what improves offender outcomes and what may actually do more harm than good means that CCOs must possess the expertise to properly respond to individual offenders. Sometimes this involves greater structure and accountability and at other times it means providing greater levels of support and treatment. Notably, this requires policymakers and administrators to prepare systems for change by structuring their agencies to incorporate the principles of effective supervision, make available evidence-based treatment programs, and provide CCOs with the resources to be effective in conducting their daily work. The use of evidence-based practices to manage both offender risks and needs entails an interdisciplinary and fluid approach to supervision.

    Chapter 6 presents how many CCOs inherently act as street-level boundary spanners between their agency, police, mental health services, social services, faith-based organizations, employers, and public health services. Research shows many positive aspects of collaborating across agencies, but there are often shared histories of mutual distrust, ill will, and conflicting missions to hamper free-flowing relationships. These challenges are more apparent in attempts to collaborate with helping institutions such as social services and mental health services and less so in relationships with agencies that hold coercive power such as the courts, police, jail, and prison. In order for CCOs to be truly effective boundary spanners supportive of a fluid approach between control and assistance, greater attention has to be given to building linkages with helping institutions.

    Finally, Chapter 7 highlights the need to reframe community supervision from a passive offender management system to a proactive boundary-spanning organization with professionals geared to achieving positive outcomes within the context of the community. This can only be achieved by reinvesting in community corrections as an agency that has the potential to do what no other agency in social services or criminal justice has the power to accomplish alone—to use an expansive range of options to manage both offenders' risks and needs to guide the entire process of change, over time and across systems, to enhance public safety. Unfortunately, this incredible resource is wasted by uninformed politicians and driven by an uninformed public and a narrow conceptualization of community corrections officers that oftentimes results in a disastrous set of policies and expectations for both CCOs and the offenders to which they are responsible. A review of the literature, combined with listening to CCOs, presents the opportunity to realistically define the utility of community corrections and to inspire policymakers and corrections leaders to meaningfully invest in community corrections to improve the success of the entire criminal justice system. It is time to remove the cloak of invisibility from community corrections officers and fully respect the importance of their work to enhance public safety.

    It is my hope that students, practitioners, and policymakers will find this book useful to informing their education, supporting their professional practice, and engaging policymakers to fully invest in community corrections as a powerful tool to improve the overall outcomes of the criminal justice system. A practical purpose of this book is to bring to life the social science research about community corrections officers by connecting it to real-life examples of what CCOs think about their work in relation to the issues important to them. Existing research is brought from the abstract to reality to illustrate the complex roles, experiences, and perceptions of officers responsible for managing and integrating offenders into the community. Ideally, a comprehensive review focused on community corrections officers will inform policymakers, educators, practitioners, and the public that a narrow conceptualization of community corrections officers creates a disastrous set of expectations for both community corrections officers and the offenders to which they are responsible. By listening to CCOs and connecting their experiences to existing research, a more realistic vision evolves about the complex role CCOs perform and the importance of their work to the ultimate success of the criminal justice system.

    Acknowledgments

    While writing this work, it became very clear that no author works alone, even though at times writing is a lonely endeavor. My interest in community corrections officers began with a call from the Washington State Department of Corrections to see whether anyone at Washington State University was interested in a researcher-practitioner partnership to study neighborhood-based supervision. Fortunately, one of my senior colleagues, Nicholas Lovrich, was interested in mentoring a junior scholar at the time through the process of applying for a national grant and sharing his extensive knowledge about research, collaboration, and partnering with state agencies to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. I will always be grateful to him for sharing with me the importance of “face time,” listening to practitioners talk about the importance of their work to inform research, and that research is as much about building relationships as it is about building statistical models. I will always be thankful to have had the good fortune to work with Dr. Peggy Smith and Ms. Doreen Gieger, both with the Washington State Department of Corrections, as my practitioner partners on this project. Their understanding of the inner workings of the Department of Corrections (DOC), insightful observations about program implementation, and willingness to embrace research and to respond to my multiple questions and requests for data will always be appreciated. They, along with Elizabeth Drake, my former student and a research analyst for the DOC at the time, will always have my gratitude. Finally, I will always be indebted to Dr. David Murphy, the graduate research assistant for this project. David conducted the majority of the interviews, completed all of the transcriptions, and worked to bring the project to fruition while I was trying to balance work with several major events in my personal life. He will always have a warm place in my heart, and I hope I can repay his kindness by passing it forward.

    I also appreciate the support provided for this study through the National Institute of Justice (Grant No. 1999-CE-VX-0007), the Washington State Department of Corrections (WADOC), and Washington State University (WSU). The points of view in this book are mine and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice, the WADOC, or WSU. I am especially thankful for the access and time given to this project by the employees of the WADOC. The frankness, passion, and care given by CCOs when expressing their views gives valuable insight about the complexity of working as a community corrections professional and provides a basis to build theory, expand research, inform policy, and influence practice. I will always be grateful for their willingness to educate and to share their expertise. I also appreciate my ongoing collaboration with WADOC research managers Teri Harold-Prayer, Michael Evans, and Dave Daniels and their ongoing endeavor to use research to inform best practices.

    I am thankful to my colleagues at Washington State University who have always been a source of intellectual inspiration, support, and more importantly laughter throughout my career, especially Laurie Drapela, Otwin Marenin, Martha Cottam, Tom Preston, Nöel Sturgeon, Jacqueline van Wormer, Zachary Hamilton, Melanie Neuilly, David Makin, Lisa Janowski, Sisouvanh Keopanapay, and most recently Mary Stohr and Craig Hemmens. In addition, I appreciate Roger Schaefer's willingness to allow me to use excerpts from our coauthored work published elsewhere to support Chapter 5 on evidence-based practice and for our many impromptu intellectual exchanges. There were also a number of undergraduate students who showed great patience as they listened to my ideas regarding this book throughout classes—especially those in CJ450 (Fall 2012) and CJ424 (Spring 2013) and Katelynne Mierz and Maria Cortes, who took the time to review various chapters and give important feedback. In addition to my colleagues and students at WSU, I am also grateful to my Sage editor, Jerry Westby, who took an interest in my idea and helped me to bring this project to fruition and to Mark Bast, who made it shine. I am thankful for the external reviews conducted by Michael Brown, Mario L. Hesse, Cathy Levey, Alfredo Montalvo, and Michael Montgomery—their insight helped to strengthen the manuscript.

    Of course, no book can be completed without the support and joy experienced with friends: Lael and Larry Turnbow, Charlie Gerke and Gretal Leibnitz, Jackie Helfgott and Zalia, Fran Bernat, Cherith Letargo and Ariel Malicse, Nina Gregory, Marvel Ebert, Phyllis Millan, Alice Kaste, and Diane Biby, who has become family. My whitewater river-running buddies: Jim and Janet, Jocelyn and Bill, Jen and Frank, Kath, Mark, and Mike. My fellow EMTs who always inspire me with their willingness to selflessly volunteer to serve our community by helping others day and night: Rick, Robin, Lynn, Mike, and Kathy. Finally, I am grateful to Abbey and Beckum for keeping me company throughout the project.

    It is the love and support given by my family that brings the purest of joy to my life and whose support makes my research and writing possible. I will always be thankful for my parents Sheila and Wayne Lutze, whose belief in the value of education and the ability to fully appreciate the simple pleasures in life set me up to fully enjoy mine. Thanks to Wayne Lutze Jr., whose humor, honesty, camaraderie, and integrity make me proud to call him my brother, and to his family who always bring a smile: Bea, Wayne III, and Andy. Finally, and most importantly, it is Rick, my husband and best friend, who creates the loving and “easy silence” in my life that I am thankful for every day. Along with Rick are our children, Julia and Walker, who have brought to my life both adventure and the knowing of pure joy. Nothing is better.

    Notes

    1. The City of Spokane is located in northeastern Washington State and has a population of approximately 208,000 people. It is located in Spokane County (SC) with a total population of about 470,000 (U.S. Census 2010). The City of Spokane has an unemployment rate of 9.6% (SC 9%) and a median income of $41,466 (SC $49,257), with 66% (SC 64%) employed in occupations related to service, natural resources, construction, maintenance, production, transportation, and material moving. For those living in the City of Spokane, 12.7% (SC 9.3%) of all families and 18.6% (SC 14.4%) of all people lived below the poverty line during the last 12 months.

    2. The full methodology for this study is available on request by contacting the author at lutze@wsu.edu or see Drapela and Lutze (2009) and Murphy and Lutze (2009). To assure anonymity, research identification numbers are used instead of names to distinguish officer quotes from one another.

    Works Cited
    Drapela, L. A., & Lutze, F. E. (2009). Innovation in community corrections and probabtion officers' fears of being sued: Implementing neighborhood-based supervision in Spokane, Washington. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 25(1), 364–383. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1043986209344549
    Murphy, D., & Lutze, F. (2009). Police-probation partnerships: Professional identity and the sharing of coercive power. Journal of Criminal Justice, 37(5) 65–76. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2008.12.010
    United States Census Bureau. (2010). American fact finder. Retrieved from http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?src=bkmk
  • About the Author

    Faith E. Lutze, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Washington State University. She received her MA in criminal justice from the University of Cincinnati in 1988 and her PhD in the administration of justice from the Pennsylvania State University in 1996. Her current research interests include drug courts, the professional role of community corrections officers, offender adjustment to community corrections supervision, violence against women, and gender and justice with an emphasis on masculinity in prisons. She currently teaches criminal justice courses related to corrections, violence toward women, ethics, and gender and justice. Dr. Lutze has published her research related to boot camp prisons, masculine prison environments, community corrections officers, and drug courts in various journals, including Justice Quarterly, Crime & Delinquency, Criminology and Public Policy, and The Journal of Criminal Justice. She is also the recipient of the Coremae Richey Mann Leadership Award (2010), presented by the Minorities and Women Section of ACJS, and the recipient of the ACJS Corrections Section Award (2010) for scholarship and service in corrections.


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