In these challenging economic times when the value of every governmental entity and its budgetary support is under serious consideration, the efficacy of the services provided by juvenile probation departments is included in that scope of examination. We must recognize that statistics alone cannot adequately portray the positive impact effective probation officers can have upon reforming delinquent behaviors. It is through the positive interactions probation officers establish with juvenile probationers that the greatest pathway to comprehensive reform is forged.
The following story was written several years ago. It is only one of thousands more that need to be told to properly “season” those spreadsheet and balance sheet portrayals of juvenile probation departments’ value to the juvenile justice system.
Probation is a derivative of the Latin word “probare” meaning “to prove.” It is defined today in its simplest form as personal freedom based upon the promise of reform. Juveniles granted probation by a juvenile court judge for having committed delinquent acts are assigned a probation officer to help them keep their promise. That probation officer is responsible for ensuring the public’s safety in the short term through the close monitoring of the youth’s whereabouts and activities and for ensuring the public’s safety in the long term by engaging the youth with programs designed to elevate social competencies leading to productive lifestyles.
Often maligned as an ineffective remedy with undetectable success, stories evidencing the prudent use of this sentencing option are seldom told. Instead the public’s default opinion of probation is formed by mirages of lightly slapped wrists and unchecked behaviors. As a rebuttal to this outdated misconception, I offer an eyewitness account of a past event organized by the San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department that helped a group of 60-plus juvenile probationers fulfill their promise of reform.
At a time when all too many broken promises are revealed daily through the subsequent crimes committed by recidivists, the public’s attention is easily diverted away from those youth who are sincere in their resolve and efforts to maintain good faith. On a Wednesday one August, the eyes of the San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department were fixed upon a group of its model probationers in an unprecedented way that celebrated the youths’ completion of the Mayor’s Safe Summer ’06 Program and affirmed their steady course toward productive citizenship.
Anchored by the gracious generosity of the Zellerbach Family Foundation, the Deputy Probation Officers Association, City Youth Now and Muni, a core group of juvenile probation officers strategically planned and organized a day trip for probation youth that involved a chartered boat ride and lunch at the San Francisco Bay.
Its sole purpose was to celebrate the youths’ success in satisfying their conditions of probation and for completing the summer youth employment program, designed by the Mayor’s Office and supported by the Board of Supervisors, the Department of Children, Youth and their Families, the Recreation and Park Department and MYEEP. It was clear to the youth that the entire city family of agencies and departments joined together in celebration.
The hidden agenda for the trip, however, was a heavy dose of positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement of the juveniles’ behavioral adjustment. Positive reinforcement of the probation officers’ enriched professional relationships with their probationers.
From the very outset the officers and juveniles had fun both dispensing and consuming the obligatory words of caution and behavioral admonishments that preceded the boarding of the busses and the boat. Each group clearly understood that such warnings were customary for any event of this kind. During the entire cruise they were openly solicitous of each other’s attention. Conversations flowed freely about music, school, sports, clothes and career plans.
Life after probation was a popular theme. The youth seemed relaxed, comforted and secure in this setting, wide open to casual discussion with each other and the adults in their midst, which included roving youth employment recruiters. The probation officers portrayed similar satisfaction with the venue, most comfortable with their new portable roles as cruise directors, program emcees, raffle announcers, deck attendants and pursers.
During the entire flawless event, staged under sunny skies, my eyes were fixed upon the eyes of the youth and their probation officers. Each set reflected the true excitement of a new experience and a new vision. Both groups were noticeably content with the prospect of a temporary escape from neighborhood unrest and office routine. Originally linked by statutory duty and court order, the two groups were now united on a more personal and pro-social plane than ever before. It was evident. They thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company.
Official certificates of successful achievement that had been carefully designed and prepared by the planning committee were presented to each youth in a sealed manila envelope to ensure the likelihood it would safely reach a place of honor at home. A few lucky winners of gift cards and Giants tickets had those prizes already tucked in their jeans. And finally, an orange rubberized wrist band inscribed with “JPD Safe Summer Event ’06” was given to every tour member as an added souvenir of the day.
The most significant souvenir that everybody walked the plank with upon their return to shore was the shared memory of renewed hope and strengthened commitment. Hope and commitment to satisfying a promise of reform. Hope and commitment to facilitating the promise of reform. These memories would leave indelible impressions.
The event I witnessed on this bright, sunny San Francisco day could have involved any number of well-behaved adolescents ringed by a complementary cohort of attentive mentors. Such is the case for the more traditional groups that visit the Bay and that any number of sponsors would line up to finance such an excursion for based solely on the entertainment value.
But none of these other groups would have benefited as significantly as the two groups I was privileged to accompany that particular day. It was our day. It was a day reserved for our well-behaved probationers and for our attentive juvenile probation officers and staff. It was our unusually bright day in the midst of many dark days of late. It was our day to celebrate the successes attached to fulfilling the promise of reform, the purpose of probation. It truly was our day. It was the SFJPD’s Day in the Sun with our probationers.
Bill Siffermann is a retired chief juvenile probation officer from San Francisco. His career as a juvenile probation officer began in 1970 in Cook County (Chicago), where he spent 34 years in progressively responsible positions overseeing delinquency caseloads, preadjudicatory diversion, intensive supervision programs and, as deputy director, co-led Cook County’s Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI), which was later selected as one of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s National Model Sites. In 2005 he was selected as San Francisco’s chief juvenile probation officer, where he continued to advance the principles of detention reform. Retiring in 2013, his work in juvenile justice continues as a consultant.