Probation officers help turn lives around


POSTED: Thursday, May 06, 2010

On the stage that is the criminal justice system, probation officers (POs) play a unique and valuable role that—like backstage hands—often goes unnoticed and unappreciated.

Unfortunately, when a PO is noticed, it is during the infrequent times (given that 12,000 offenders statewide are on probation) when an offender under his or her supervision makes headlines by committing a serious offense.

Generally, felons are on probation for five years and misdemeanants one to two. Juveniles may get off after a year of good behavior or remain on probation until further order of the court or until he or she reaches 18.

Probationers, whom we call clients, are under court order to comply with a long list of requirements—such as not possessing firearms, not possessing or using alcohol or illegal drugs, submitting to urinalysis and working or attending vocational training—as well as checking in with their PO at least once a month. It is a PO's job to make sure that his or her clients—which can average up to 160 felons per PO—complies with those requirements.

Most POs are in direct and frequent contact with their clients, some of whom view meetings with their PO with greater reluctance and hostility than having a tooth extraction.

And, given their clients' criminal histories, one would expect that the POs are less than overjoyed about the prospect of working with some of their charges. But, to the contrary, POs often develop a mutually close relationship with their clients. POs are motivated by the prospect of helping a person become functional as a law-abiding citizen, and are rewarded and rejuvenated when that goal is reached.

After 19 years of working at the Hawaii State Judiciary, I have heard many accounts about POs going beyond the call of duty. There are some who have, on their own time, driven around town searching for a missing client or given clothes and food so that a client would not go without.

POs advise, counsel, listen, scold, cajole, affirm, encourage, support, share, provide, mentor and help. And from all this, a unique bond is often built.

Research shows that clients who have positive relationships with their POs are more likely to succeed on probation.

I recently had the privilege of attending a Girls Court “;graduation.”; During the ceremony, the girls and their parents openly and emotionally spoke about how much they felt they owed to the people involved in the Hawaii Girls Court program for helping turn the girls' lives around. In turn, each PO spoke with pride and affection as they described the ups and downs of their respective charge's life-changing journeys through the program.

Everyone was touched and uplifted. Tears were rolling down the cheeks of many, including mine.

There is no doubt POs have a very difficult job, and budget cutbacks have made it even more difficult. I used to wonder why someone would choose such a career and surmised that it is not for the money alone.

People who choose a career as a probation officer are uniquely upbeat, caring, and more apt to see the positive in a person regardless of how difficult that person is or how long his or her criminal history may be. They are optimistic about the rehabilitative potential of humans to change for the better, and feel rewarded and gratified when they are able to help their clients do so.

Marsha Kitagawa is public affairs officer for the Hawaii State Judiciary.