OP-ED: The Makings of a Good Juvenile Probation Officer

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When juvenile court judges across the nation make decisions in response to crimes committed by children, most often those children receive a sentence of probation, and the court relies upon the talents, education and professionalism of probation officers and departments to put those children on a better path.

You see, judges are trained to make decisions, not to do the hands-on work — matching kids to services, interacting with families and communities and encouraging kids to comply with court orders.

There have always been opposing opinions about how best to accomplish probation’s mission. Some advocate strict supervision requiring absolute compliance with court and probation requirements, and others favor supportive relationships encouraging growth and behavior change.

Unfortunately, some officers see their role in terms outside this continuum, and that is currently news in Chicago.

After conducting dozens of interviews with probation department officials, probationers and others and reviewing court, police, FBI and probation records, The Chicago Tribune recently reported probation officers “have the power under the law to visit homes and conduct surprise searches without court-ordered warrants if they have ‘reasonable suspicion‘ according to agreements probationers sign.” On some occasions, police officers and FBI agents have accompanied these probation visits and gained access to homes where they might otherwise need a warrant. Constitutional implications are obvious, but in some cases, allegations were raised about planted drugs, stolen money and coercion to become informants for the police.

These role definition questions are not limited to adult or juvenile officers or to Chicago and other large cities. While serving as Chief Judge in a very rural circuit — the administrative job that includes supervising probation officers and other court employees — it came to my attention that an officer was repeatedly late to work. When the probation director questioned him, he reported that he was losing a lot of sleep because he was attending night raids with a local law enforcement agency. Further inquiries revealed that he had developed a relationship with a female probationer and used her to inform about alleged crimes that he passed on to the agency. The hearsay evidence elicited from the female client was insufficient to support a warrant. His search authority was used on midnight visits to probationers’ homes, and warrantless searches found drugs. The state’s attorney was left to sort out this mess, and he wisely deferred from filing charges in many of these cases. The end of this arrangement came when I offered the officer one week to resign — he did not do so and was relieved of his employment.

These situations are somewhat understandable. Both probation and police officers are educated in the same Administration of Justice curricula in community colleges and universities. Both professions are dedicated to public safety and the officers work closely in their communities and see each other often during court proceedings. Consolidated training often occurs on matters of personal safety, new laws and emerging drug or gang activity. Perhaps what is missing is an understanding of the appropriate role of probation officers.

The American Probation and Parole Association (APPA) has published clear position papers on many topics including the purpose of probation. To paraphrase: The APPA states that the mission of probation is to protect public safety by reducing crime and that this role is accomplished by assisting courts through probation reports and by enforcing court orders; providing services that provide opportunities for offenders to become more law-abiding and by providing cooperation in preventing crime and delinquency. Further, the APPA believes that probation officers should recognize that: offenders have rights, including the right to privacy; humans are capable of change; intervention into an offender’s life should be the minimal amount needed to protect society; and incarceration may be destructive. The emphasis is on individual consideration and respect.

When a probation officer crosses the line into behaving as a police officer, the probationer may lose the confidence needed to pay attention to the officer’s advice and choice of services and programs. Of course, a probation officer cannot ignore clear signals. Like a doctor or psychologist, a probation officer has the duty to report danger to others, but good judgment is required.

The solution to the problem can be found in good management. Clear policy and protocol should be developed and driven by mission and purpose. Probation departments must regularly revisit this exercise and recognize new developments in law and evidence-based practice. The decisions as to searches and other matters must be documented, written, distributed and regularly reviewed.

Good management and practice are always needed in all fields. But when it comes to maintaining a probationer’s confidence in the fairness of the court and trust in a probation officer’s guidance, they are essential to the success of that probationer and fidelity to the probation officer’s mission.

Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., has served as Chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission since his appointment by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn in January 2010, and he is an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years prior to his 2006 retirement as Chief Judge of Illinois’ Second Circuit, which is comprised of 12 counties in southeastern Illinois. Timberlake also is a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board, and the board of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a statewide advocacy coalition. A resident of Mt. Carmel, Illinois, Timberlake earned a bachelor’s degree and MBA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a law degree from the University of Illinois College of Law.

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