Probation-Parole and Community Supervision Week-Second Program-DC Public Safety

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This radio program is available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2009/07/probation-parole-and-community-supervision-week-second-program/

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– Audio begins –

Len Sipes: From my microphones in downtown Washington D.C., this is D.C. Public Safety. I’m your host, Len Sipes. We are doing the second show in one day in terms of National Probation and Parole Officers Week – Community Supervision Week. It is a week to celebrate the role of Parole and Probation agents. We call them Community Supervision Officers here in the District of Columbia. And the week started off, the coverage started off, with the American Probation and Parole Association and they have materials on their website, APPA-net.org, and there you can find materials about the week and the fact that the Parole and Probation agencies’ communities’ supervision agencies throughout the country, and beyond, are celebrating the week using their materials. But to look at it from a local point of view, from the point of view in the District of Columbia, we have three people with us today. We have Amanda Rocha, and she is the co-chair of this week of the celebrations here in the District of Columbia. The chair is Bernita Johnson, and she is by her microphones, and Len Palma is from our – not from our – but from the Pre-trial Release Services Division. Ladies and gentlemen, we do want to thank you for all the letters, all of the phone calls, everything that you’ve been sending to us regarding the show, regarding criticisms and comments. Please continue your comments through either the comments section of the web site of D.C. Public Safety, or directly via email, leonard.sipes@csosa.gov, or you can follow me by Twitter, Twitter/LenSipes, and to Amanda and to Len and to Bernita Johnson, welcome to D.C. Public Safety.

Unidentified Female: Thank you.

Len Sipes: All right. Bernita, tell me about this whole concept of why we’re celebrating National Parole and Probation and Community Supervision Officers’ Week.

Bernita Johnson: Well, the week is designed to recognize community supervision officers in D.C. and the hard work we do. So CSOSA has designed a week worth of activities so that we can acknowledge the CSO, show appreciation for them, acknowledge our relationships with stake holders, provide some education to the community, do some community service and give back and just celebrate the work we do every day as community supervision officers.

Len Sipes: We have a proclamation from the mayor?

Bernita Johnson: We do. Mayor Adrian Fenty did sign a proclamation coining this National Probation and Parole week, and he recognized CSOSA and Pre-trial services in our proclamation.

Len Sipes: And one of the things I want to point out, ladies and gentlemen, that the Court Services of Offender Supervision Agency of the District of Columbia is a federal agency. We have community supervision officers – what most people call parole and probation agents out are out supervising 15,000 offenders on any given day. Pre-trial, I think, Len Palma supervises about 6,000 offenders, but we’re going to stick with Bernita for a minute. One of the things that I do want to get across, however, is going beyond the usual government niceties about celebrating this week. And I want to get into the realities of what happens with Parole and Probation agents when they’re in the community – what their contributions are to public safety. That was, in essence, the heart and soul of the show that we did this morning with the American Probation and Parole Association. And I want to continue that theme in terms of what it is that we do, Ms. Johnson. Do we really contribute to public safety?

Bernita Johnson: Yes, Len. We are charged with the very difficult job because, while we are supposed to protect public safety, we do have to help the offenders. We have to work with them, develop a very personal relationship with them, to try to assist them in having better lives so that they do not commit crimes.

Len Sipes: Well, but the public is going to say, “That’s nice that you’re helping them and the research is pretty doggone clear that it has to be both an enforcement role and a helping role.” So there’s no doubt that the helping role needs to be there and the programs need to be there and we need to participate in those programs. But the average person out there in society says, “I simply want to be protected and I expect you to protect me.” So the bottom line is: do we protect not only the citizens or the visitors or the people who do business in Washington D.C., do parole and probation agents – isn’t their first job public safety, whether it’s D.C. or throughout the country? And if so, how do we accomplish that?

Bernita Johnson: Public safety is first and foremost because we are dealing with the criminal population. So we have to make sure that they’re not committing the same crimes that they did commit or committing new crimes. But I think that in order to successfully effect change in people and make sure that they’re not committing crimes, we have to do look at the side of it where we’re providing those services.

Len Sipes: Agreed.

Bernita Johnson: So it’s really important to provide the services in order to prevent the negative behavior.

Len Sipes: And we talked about that this morning with Diane Kincaid, the spokesperson for the American Probation and Parole Association, how difficult it is for community supervision personnel to walk that fine line because we carry badges. We are law enforcement officers, but at the same time we have to do two things. We have to enforce the public safety – if we feel that this person is a threat to public safety, we have to do what we have to do to remand the person back to the parole commission, back to the courts, and return a person back to the criminal justice system. But at the same time, we’re obligated to help them wherever we can and programs become very important. One of the examples that a lot of people use is this issue of mental health. I mean, who would deny that that person – when they come out of the prison system, if they’re mentally ill – who would deny that person access to mental health treatment? That most people throughout this country, regardless of their political persuasion, I think most people would agree that mental health treatment is important if that person is going to successfully come back out of the prison system and not return to the criminal justice system.

Bernita Johnson: Of course. And as CSO’s, we’re charged with with everything. All the drug treatment issues, the mental health issues, any issues that the individual might have – we’re charged with addressing them and just building rapport and trust with the population, so that they can believe we’re out to help them; because a lot of times people – they’re receptive to what they believe will really help them. They’re not going to be receptive if they think that we’re law enforcement officers or if they feel like we’re police, then they’re not going to be receptive to us. They’re going to be afraid of us. And then we won’t be successful.

Len Sipes: Walking that fine line, I think, it’s one of the most difficult things in the world. In my former life as a police officer and spending six years in law enforcement, I can go into a situation and walk out 20 minutes later and I’m done. That parole and probation agent, which is what they’re called throughout the country – here, they’re called community supervision officers. That person is going to end up spending years with that individual, with that individual’s family, with that individual’s mother, with that individual’s children, with their employers. I mean, we’re in it for the long haul. And I think that is indicative to how difficult your job is.

Bernita Johnson: Yes. It’s a very difficult job. But it’s also very rewarding. To start at the very beginning with someone and see them be successful. Even if they might not go the straight and narrow path the entire way, they may go back to jail for a short period of time and then come back out and we’ll be able to continue to work with them. It’s rewarding because you really get to see change, and you really get to see the rewards and benefits of the services that we have to offer, and the public safety side as well. They also know that we’re serious. If we end up having to return an offender to jail, to the parole commission or to a judge, they know that when I’m on supervision, I really have to do what I’m supposed to do because my community supervision officer is going to take this very seriously, if I get re-arrested or if I’m not living where I say I’m living. So the relationships we build with the offenders and their families and the community is very important.

Len Sipes: And everybody has to understand that there’s no such thing as an offender coming out and dotting every “I” and crossing every “T.” They’re going to mess up to a certain degree. I’m astounded about all the technical violations that we record here at CSOSA. So, that person could be going to drug treatment, could be working, could be reunited with his family, could be taking care of their kids once again but still pull positives for marijuana.

Bernita Johnson: Right. Because one of the things that even they’ll tell you in the 12-step program is that relapse is a part of recovery.

Len Sipes: That’s right.

Bernita Johnson: So you will end up having to deal with those issues. If someone may be clean for a year or two years, they may relapse. And you still do have to address them appropriately.

Len Sipes: Right. But the public is going to say, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. The person’s out of prison and he’s doing drugs? Put him back in prison.” And if we did that, the capacity of the prison system of this country would double overnight. We would bankrupt every state in the United States.

Bernita Johnson: Exactly. And you’d ruin a whole lot of families in the process. The goal is to help as many people as you possibly can. To put someone in drug treatment for even nine months would be more beneficial than putting them in jail for three months for a violation of drug use. So it could, if you’re talking about a father who relapsed and used cocaine two or three times, you’re going to benefit him and his entire family more by sending him to drug treatment then you would by sending him to jail.

Len Sipes: The average parole and probation agent in this country has a bachelors’ degree and most of the people that I’ve talked to throughout the country have masters’ degrees. And some even higher than that. So it’s a fairly educated work force.

Bernita Johnson: It is. But what’s even more interesting is the population we deal with is not educated. So we’re charged with dealing with an uneducated population and communicating with them well enough so that they understand what we expect of them.

Len Sipes: I want to make a point of the show, in fact you were part of the television show, Bernita, just the other day, where we did 8,000 accountability tours on any given year where we go out with police officers, but we also do 40,000 home visits, an additional 20,000 visits where there is no police officer. You travel – our personnel travel in high crime communities. But I’ve done, ride-alongs with our community supervision officers – you go into tough communities. You interact with some fairly tough people. That’s even before getting to the offender’s door. Your job could be considered a bit dangerous.

Bernita Johnson: It could be. But we’re community supervision officers. We’re supposed to go out into the community and build relationships in the community so that we can help that individual be successful in the community. So, you may encounter some not-so-nice things going to some one’s door, but you have to kind of embrace every opportunity you get to help that person. So you have to meet the family, the friends, the neighbors, and look for anything pro-social in the area that can help that offender – whether it be a school that the offender can go to, a drug treatment program that’s close to his home that he can go to while he’s still able to be at home; or just getting to know the community is very important to be successful in what we do.

Len Sipes: The program goes all throughout the United States. It goes well beyond the District of Columbia where 20% of our audience is international. What do people need to know about what it’s like to be a parole and probation agent officer/community supervision officer in this country? What do people not know? I mean, there’s not a lot of story – I mean, there’s 10 tons of stories about cops. And so people feel – even if they don’t get the right idea – at least they’re exposed, to some degree, as to the heroism and to the hard work and dedication of police officers. There are no shows out there about parole and probation agents. So, you have a unique opportunity to tell literally tens of thousands of people what is it like? What do they need to know about being a parole and probation agent?

Bernita Johnson: Well, it’s not an easy job, but it can be extremely rewarding. We do not have arrest powers. We do not carry guns. We do not try to hurt the people that we deal with on an everyday basis, but we also are charged with protecting the community without guns and without arrest powers. So we’re out here, trying to convince people –

Len Sipes: But you do carry a badge?

Bernita Johnson: We do.

Len Sipes: And you are considered a law enforcement officer.

Bernita Johnson: We are law enforcement. And we’re trying to convince people to choose to live better lives instead of trying to scare them into: “We’re going to arrest you,” or “I have a gun, I can shoot you.” We’re convincing people that this is the best choice and a lot of times, it’s very challenging.

Len Sipes: All right. We’re going to go over to Len Palma now. Len Palma represents Pre-trial Services. Pre-trial is – you’re not going to understand this, ladies and gentlemen, I’m not quite sure I understand it either – an independent entity within the larger structure of the Court Services of Offender Supervision Agency but they are, in essence, a part of CSOSA administratively. I provide them with social services or our attorneys provide them with services, but they are – they have their own board. They have their own entity. They have their own independence. So in any event, Len Palma, you do the pre-trial end of things and is your job significantly different from that of a parole and probation agent or a community supervision officer? Get on top of that microphone, if you would.

Len Palma: No. Hi, Len. No. It’s not that different at all, actually. We just do things in a pre-sentence mode.

Len Sipes: Okay. And a pre-sentence mode means what? You’re supervising offenders until trial?

Len Palma: We’re supervising defendants until sent,

Len Sipes: The sentence. I’m sorry.

Len Palma: Until sentencing.

Len Sipes: Okay. Until sentencing. You have levels of contact. You drug test them. So in essence, there are a lot of similarities. You just have them for a much shorter period of time.

Len Palma: Yes.

Len Sipes: And one of the things that I note about pre-trial services agency in the District of Columbia, you have one of the highest return-to-court statistics in the country. I’m not quite sure that you’re aware of tha,t but the last time I looked at the statistics, pre-trial services in the District of Columbia is successful in terms of getting more people to trial than most pre-trial agencies in the country. So you’re certainly to be congratulated for that.

Len Palma: Thank you.

Len Sipes: What is it about pre-trial that makes it successful? What is it about pre-trial that prompts that success rate?

Len Palma: Well, we have a lot of people that are devoted to the excellence of the agency. We are constantly upgrading our ability to collect information, as well as the mode in which we collect them. So, things like that, whether it’s new programs or new ways to interview people or just things like that, are constantly what help us generate more information that allows us to keep in contact with these defendants as they’re out in public.

Len Sipes: Because you have, in essence, the same sort of walking of that fine line that Bernita addressed – that sense that if the person’s not following what it is that he or she should be doing, you’re sort of obligated to return to the court and there is the possibility that they could revoke their community supervision status before their trial and put the person within jail. Correct?

Len Palma: That is true. That is true.

Len Sipes: And that’s a tough decision to make because you’ve got to ensure that they do what’s right and, in some cases, that means going and getting treatment while they’re waiting for court, correct?

Len Palma: Correct.

Len Sipes: And because people obviously – if a person has a drug problem, we try to get them into drug treatment. If the person has an anger problem – and a lot of our offenders seem to have anger problems – I mean, you’ve got to deal with that.

Len Palma: Correct. It is tough. But we’ve got to wear different hats at different times. But, first and foremost, we’ve got to keep in mind that the public safety is number one. And so, if public safety demands that we must report every aspect of the defendant’s compliance to the court, then that’s exactly what we have to do.

Len Sipes: Len, we’re going to continue with you, we’re quickly halfway through the program. I want to re-introduce our guest. We have Bernita Johnson and she is the chair of this committee that is taking a look at celebrating, at least here in the District of Columbia, all the different things that we do at the Court Services of Offender Supervision Agency and we’re not squat without our personnel. Our personnel is – they are the Court Services of Offender Supervision Agency, which is why most of our radio shows, most of our television shows, and most of the articles – national articles – that we create focus not on the leadership, but focus principally upon the people who do the job. Bernita was just doing a television show on accountability towards it and we didn’t put up the chief of police, nor did we put up a chief of CSOSA. We put up two people who really do accountability tours, and two police officers who do accountability tours. And she did a great job. So, Bernita is the chair of the committee. The co-chair is Amanda Rocha and you’re going to be talking to Amanda in a second. Len Palma is currently up talking about the whole role of a pre-trial services officer. If you’re interested in what’s happening throughout the country for National Probation and Parole and Community Supervision Officers’ Week, you can go to appa-net.org and att.org, that is the website of the American Probation and Parole Association. We did a program with them earlier this morning. Len, I want to continue with you a little bit. Walking that fine line is just real difficult. Because, when I talk to individuals, when I do talk radio, when I talk to a newspaper reporter, when I talk to community group leaders, you get the sense that: “Okay, well if you’ve got a guy and he’s violating his conditions of supervision, please put him in prison.” And my response is: “We can’t put everybody in prison and you can’t return everybody to jail or the D.C. jail will just become dysfunctional in a heartbeat.” We have to live within our own resources. Every state in the country has to live within their own resources. States have big budget cuts going on right now, and they’re struggling with how do we keep all the prisons open? California’s talking about releasing 30,000 criminal offenders. So other states are having similar problems. So we’ve got to live within the confines, within the resources of the criminal justice system as they are not as we wish them to be.

Len Palma: Yes. That’s true.

Len Sipes: And that’s tough for the individual pre-trial services officer to make all those decisions and to make them right all the time.

Len Palma: It is. It is. And it’s a lot of pressure because we have a lot of defendants that are on – we have a lot of defendants that are on our case loads. And so, we find it challenging at times to try to get through our case loads, to give each particular defendant the kind of case management that each one deserves. We’re not always successful but the ones that we do manage to maintain contact with and get through, come through and then end up returning to court, end up not picking up another charge.

Len Sipes: Right.

Len Palma: Or being re-arrested. And it all ends good in the end.

Len Sipes: Another thing that I believe that people don’t understand about parole and probation agents/community supervision officers/pre-trial service agents – and we’re not even talking about the juvenile side – is that so many of our offenders, this is my way of putting it, come to us with chips on their shoulders the size of Montana. For whatever reason they’re not the easiest individuals to work with and you’re tasked with not just working with that offender but working with the family, working with the employer. But how do you reach a person who has that big of a chip on their shoulder?

Len Palma: Well, believe it or not, we just went through a training that all the agency went through is a motivational,

Len Sipes: Interviewing.

Len Palma: ,interviewing skills.

Len Sipes: Yes.

Len Palma: And that was geared toward helping most of our case managers to somewhat get the defendants that come into compliance without having to resort to threatening them with court action and things of that nature. Other than that, we try to stick mostly toward the books and get people to come into compliance through normal means as in, “Well, this is what the court has ordered. This is what you have to do and let’s try to meet at a middle ground.”

Len Sipes: I was in a field office – a CSOSA field office – one time and we’re going over to see a community supervision officer who I knew. And she was just livid. She was tearing into this offender and is like: “Look, how many times do I have to tell you to stop the drugs? You’re within a millimeter of me sending you back.” And she’s like – there’s no motivation, no motivational interviewing skills at that stage of the game. She’s just reading this guy the riot act. And afterwards she just looked me a little sheepishly and she goes: “Leonard, how many times do I have to tell the guy not to do it? And he keeps pulling positives. I’m a human. I express my own frustrations and my own feelings. What,” I mean, she expected criticism from me and my response was: “No criticism here. I understand how diff – I’ve worked directly with offenders in my past. I know how difficult it can be. The three jobs that I had working directly with offenders were the three most difficult jobs of my life.”

Len Palma: It is. And it’s challenging to try and keep your emotions out of it. And a lot of times, your emotions get the best of you because you only want what’s best for the defendant. In addition, you want that feeling, you want to succeed. You don’t want to get that feeling where I failed because this defendant didn’t do what he was supposed to be doing.

Len Sipes: Right.

Len Palma: So it is challenging. It is tough in that regard. But you, as a pre-trial officer – because you’re running through so many of these defendants, you have to try to separate yourself from that emotion because, in my experience, emotions tend to muddle the waters, and then cloud decisions, and you end up saying things that you normally shouldn’t be saying to the defendant. And you should be trying to keep it on a professional scale.

Len Sipes: Right. But I just want the public to understand that this is an extraordinarily difficult job. I want them to admire parole and probation agents/community supervision officers/pre-trial services officers because you all have got a tough, tough job. And you all protect public safety and you walk that fine line between programs and enforcement every day. And I remember the times that I did it, and it was like: “My heavens, this is one tough job to motivate people who may not want to be motivated.”

Len Palma: It’s scary because I’m a court representative now and as I sit in the courtroom and I listen, I listen to some of the testimony and sometimes some of the charges as they’re being read out. You can’t help but sit there and be human and go: “My goodness, we’re letting this guy out?”

Len Sipes: “What’s up with this guy?”

Len Palma: What say? What’s going on there? But you are still given that task by the oath you took to protect and serve the public, to make sure that this defendant does not go on and do anything else and make sure he returns to court on time.

Len Sipes: Understood. We’re going to go over to Amanda Rocha now. Amanda, one of the things that again, I’ve talked to offenders. I’ve talked to more than a couple of offenders who credited community supervision officers with their turnaround, who credited with them for,I spoke to a couple on the mental health case load who told me that if it wasn’t for the CSO’s insisting that they take their meds, if it wasn’t for the CSO’s – community supervision officers – coming into constant contact with them, they would not be here today. They would be back in jail. Is that true? I mean, do you guys really have that much of an impact on individual human beings?

Amanda Rocha: Absolutely, Len. We’re dealing with people. We have to remember that this is a human. We’re humans and they are also humans.

Len Sipes: Right.

Amanda Rocha: We have to have patience with them and in the time that we’re working with them, we’re building a rapport. And so I absolutely believe that a person, a CSO – a community supervision officer – would be able to make that big of an impact on these people. As I said, they’re humans and sometimes they just need someone to listen to them, someone to take the time to really understand what’s going on with them. They have – sometimes they have a lot of issues and sometimes they have just a couple. But part of our job is to talk with them, to help address those issues. I had a person that opened up to me and shared something that I didn’t think was something that he would come out and tell me.

Len Sipes: Right.

Amanda Rocha: And I think that just shows that sometimes when you’re working with them, that they can become comfortable and share things that they may have not told anyone else.

Len Sipes: You take a look at the research and most of our offenders – this is not most of our offenders in the District of Columbia, but national research – most come from broken homes. Most raise themselves. The level of substance abuse is extraordinarily high. It is not unusual for people caught up in the criminal justice system to be doing substances at the age of 12, 13, age of onset of crime 14, 15, 16. A lot of these individuals, they’re angry because they weren’t raised, dad’s not in the home, and the mental health – this is a self-assessment on the part of national research that 55% of offenders believe that they had mental health issues. If you take a look at the research regarding women offenders, the majority of women offenders report sexual violence especially during childhood. In terms of abuse and neglect, most offenders report instances of abuse and neglect. You take an individual like that and you’re trying to come into contact with him and trying to get him on the safe and narrow, get her on a safer path, get them involved in mental health treatment, getting them involved in substance abuse treatment – that’s just tough. I mean, it may be the parole commission would say: “Okay. If you violate, you’re going to go back to prison.” Maybe the courts say, “If you violate, we’re going to put you in prison, maybe for the first time, maybe for the sixth time.” But motivating that kind of person under those circumstances is difficult.

Amanda Rocha: It sure is. It takes a lot of patience and it is difficult. It’s challenging and it’s frustrating and it’s just something that, in time, you’re able to work with the person but you do have to understand that you’re not going to be able to change a person. You can want what’s best for this person as much as possible but you can’t sit there and,

Len Sipes: Yes. I understand. It’s tough.

Amanda Rocha: Right. It is tough. But you can do what you can. You can only do what you can. You have to understand that sometimes you aren’t going to be able to assist somebody and sometimes you are going have to take them back to court or go to that next level.

Len Sipes: Nobody asked you to be a miracle worker but at the same time they do. That’s the frustrating thing about being a community supervision officer or parole and probation agent. I mean, people are asking you to take on everything about that person’s behavior and to modify that behavior in such a way that they’re no longer a threat to public safety and get them involved in the programs, work with the family, work with the kids, work with the grandmom, work with the employer, and, if necessary, put them back in prison.

Amanda Rocha: That’s right.

Len Sipes: That’s impossible.

Amanda Rocha: It is.

Len Sipes: Yes. But –

Amanda Rocha: We’re doing it everyday.

Len Sipes: That’s exactly right. This is what we ask parole and probation officers to do, and agents to do — every day. So we’re going to go back to Bernita and we’re going to let her follow up because we only have a couple of minutes left. Ladies and gentlemen, I do want to remind you that if you’re looking for information about this week, it is at the American Probation and Parole Association-net.org. The American Parole and Probation Association. Bernita, we only have a couple of minutes left. What is it that the public needs to know that we didn’t talk about?

Bernita Johnson: I think that what Amanda said was very important, that we are dealing with human beings and these are lives that we’re talking about, not just the lives of the offenders but the lives of their families and their friends, and the entire community is at stake. So what we do is very important. It can be very rewarding, but it can also be very challenging. So hopefully people can start to realize how important a job probation and parole officers have.

Len Sipes: If you can have an impact on that one particular offender, you have an impact on his kids because most of them have kids. You have an impact on our tax base because they become taxpayers. You have an impact on so many things just by intervening in the life of that one individual. And that intervention could be drug treatment. That intervention could be anger management. And that intervention could be prison.

Bernita Johnson: Exactly.

Len Sipes: And that’s a tough, almost impossible, set of things to consider.

Bernita Johnson: It’s tough but not impossible. We do believe it’s possible that’s why we come to work every day, that’s why the job can be rewarding, and hopefully the public can get onboard with what probation and parole officers try to do and we can help these people re-enter the community successfully.

Len Sipes: Bernita and Len and Amanda, I want to thank all three of you. Ladies and gentlemen, what I’m asking you do is, the next time you discover that the person sitting next to you is a parole and probation agent, a pre-trial services agent, a community supervision officer, thank them because they really do significantly, significantly contribute to the public’s safety and contribute in many ways to the bottom line – taxpayers instead of tax burdens. Ladies and gentlemen, this is D.C. Public Safety. Once again, we want to thank you for all of your contacts, all of your suggestions to improve the radio show. Get in touch with me directly via email: leonard.sipes@csosa.gov. Please have yourselves a very, very pleasant day.

– Audio ends –

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