Stress and Turnover in Parole and Probation-APPA

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Len Sipes:  From the nation’s capital this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host Leonard Sipes. Today’s show, ladies and gentlemen, “Stress and Turnover in Parole and Probation”. We have two people at our microphones. We have Kirsten Lewis. She is a probation officer, interestingly enough, with the Maricopa County Adult Probation Department. In addition, she is an adjunct psychology professor at Glendale Community College, co-owner of KSL Research and Training and Consultation, and an approved instructor by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. And back at our microphones, always glad to have Adam Matz. Adam is a researcher associate with the American Probation and Parole Association, which is an affiliate of the Council of State Governments. This is going to be an extraordinarily interesting show, ladies and gentlemen. There’re two pieces of research. I’m going to start off with the research produced by Kirsten, Surviving the Trenches:  The Personal Impact of the Job on Probation Officers.

I’m going to read very briefly from it. “It’s clear from previous research, and further supported by the research results of this study, that probation officers are impacted by their work with offenders, specifically, challenging case loads, challenging events, officer victimization, and longevity were associated with higher reports of traumatic stress and burnout.” And we’re going to go over to Adam’s document, A Meta-analysis of the Correlates of Turnover Intent in Criminal Justice Organizations:  Does agency type matter? And a very quick read from that. “Workers who are overworked, underappreciated, and generally left out of the key decision making process will suffer from emotional exhaustion, stress, and other psychological ailments that detract from general satisfaction and commitment to the job.” And that’s why we called today’s show “Stress and Turnover in Parole and Probation”. Kirsten Lewis and Adam Matz, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Kirsten Lewis:  Thank you.

Adam Matz:  Thank you.

Len Sipes:  Okay. Now, this is interesting. Both of you have participated in research projects, both of you are taking a look at stress amongst parole and probation agents or probation agents and turnover, and what that means in terms of the efficiency of the parole and probation agent. And I can remember when I first worked with corrections, and we’re now talking about 25 years ago, when I asked parole and probation what was their organizational mission, it was to enforce the orders of the court and enforce the orders of the parole commission. Now it’s evidence-based practices. Now we’re expecting parole and probation people to really get into the heads of the people who they have under supervision to understand them, to motivate them, to try to get them to change, use cognitive behavioral therapy, which means that you’re having a much more intimate relationship with that person under supervision, and that’s got to bring on a certain level of stress. So we’re going to go with Kirsten. Kirsten, is that correct?

Kirsten Lewis:  Absolutely.

Len Sipes:  Tell me about it.

Kirsten Lewis:  Well, the job as you illustrated earlier, it has changed over the years. I’ve been in the field now for 23 years, 17 with my current department. And we started off a number of years ago really just focused on making sure the offenders were following court orders and doing what they were supposed to do to stay in the community. But with the evidence-based practices that we’re doing today, which I’m a big proponent of, has dramatically changed the way that officers work with offenders. We are really rolling up our sleeves and getting into understanding what’s happened in their lives, how they got where they are, what blockage they have at the moment to be able to move forward. We’re connecting with their family and other collateral contacts out in the community. So we’re doing a lot more intensive work. There’s also some very interesting research that talks about the relationship between the officer and the offender is a protective factor, meaning that the better the relationship we’re actually seeing lower recidivism, lower rates of reoffending.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Kirsten Lewis:  So there’s more and more pressure on officers to engage and connect in meaningful ways with offenders. Which I think is a wonderful thing and I think benefits the offenders. My concern is that I think it also has come at a price for the officers.

Len Sipes:  Kirsten, and now, again, Adam and Kirsten, I’ve read both of your pieces of research, so I’m probably going to mix the two, sometimes appropriately, sometimes inappropriately. But I think , Adam , it was your research that basically took a look at what happened on the correctional side, what happened in law enforcement, but very little research on the parole and probation side. We’re asking individuals with huge caseloads, and you know, here in the District of Columbia we’re a federal parole and probation agency at Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. Our ratios are 50 to 1 or less. We have some caseloads, high-risk caseloads that go to 25 to 1. But in other states 150 to 1 parole and probation agent or one probation officer is not unusual. In other states it’s even higher. That’s got to produce a tremendous amount of stress and a tremendous amount of turnover if we’re asking them to do cognitive behavioral therapy, if we’re asking them to get into the heads, get into the lives, very deeply, very passionately, of the individuals who they have under supervision. That’s got to be enormously stressful, Adam.

Adam Matz:  Yeah. I think that’s kind of an interesting point. And I know on a previous show that we did we talked about workload. And I think you can kind of tie workload into this a little bit, that what’s being asked of you is more than what you’ve done before. But it’s not just what’s being asked of you, but actually the fact that, basically, the number of people that have been supervised, or are being supervised, has been increasing, or had increased for the past few decades, and it’s just now kind of starting to level off a little bit. So you’re not only trying to do more with folks and you’re trying to do a better job with them, but you’re also still dealing with the fact that there’s a lot of people out there. And we know also that a lot of places have been trying to basically get people out of prisons, get people out of jails, to save and cut cost because of budgetary constraints.

And I think that’s sort of an interesting thing to think about as well. And there’s a nice fancy term that’s out there called criminal justice thermodynamics, which was from Durlauf and Nagin. And the idea there that they were kind of espousing is this idea that the issues that happen may be further down the line in criminal justice agencies or institutions ends up getting shifted down further along. So in that case, it shifts down to probation and parole who are often the last folks that are dealing with these people. And then obviously, their ability to enact change impacts law enforcement and institutional corrections in sort of a reciprocal fashion, so.

Len Sipes:  Well, but 7 million people under correctional supervision, 4 of those 7 million are under parole and probation agencies. We have the great bulk of what people refer to as criminal offenders. We’re the ones responsible for them, but in terms of I think, Adam, your study, there weren’t that many studies on turnover regarding parole and probation. They were there for law enforcement. They were there for mainstream corrections. Sometimes I get the sense that mainstream parole and probation, that function is ignored where the bulk of that money on stress and turnover is going towards law enforcement, going towards mainstream corrections, it’s not going towards parole and probation. Am I right or wrong?

Adam Matz:  No. I think you’re absolutely right about that and that’s something at APPA we’ve been trying to put more emphasis on is the needs of the probation and parole folks out there and the work that they do and getting recognition for the stresses that are involved with the job and what the job is about. And it’s very true. I think our meta-analysis does kind of highlight the fact that there’s not a whole lot of research in terms of turnover with probation and parole folks. There’s a little bit with law enforcement. The most is definitely with institutional corrections. So even in that case what you see is the research varies quite a bit and some of the variables are different, and ideally, there would be some consistency there. So definitely there needs to be more work done on this topic. Now, there are some studies that look at stress as well and maybe don’t look at turnover. So turnover itself can be a little bit of a different beast depending on how you measure it as well, because a lot of times turnover behavior is just something that’s hard to capture, and it’s also some agencies just may not want to share it. And I know from some of the figures we looked at, the turnover rates really across the different subfields can be any from 20% to 30%, 40% when you compare that to [OVERLAY] –

Len Sipes:  For parole and probation.

Adam Matz:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  Yeah.

Adam Matz:  Yeah. In fact, a study in Florida, I believe it was 20%, actually or 30%, I’m sorry, 30% in Florida, there was a study in Florida that showed 30%. And when you look at teachers or nurses you’re finding they’re around 10% to 15% nationally. So just for comparison it’s pretty high.

Len Sipes:  You can reach Kirsten Lewis; I’ll give you her website right now. It’s Adam can be reached cam be reached at appa/, www.appa/.net. I’m sorry, / All right, so what does all this mean, Adam and Kirsten? What does all this mean in terms of getting the job done? We know that parole and probation people are extraordinarily important to public safety. We know that from a variety of research that the more they’re involved in the lives of individuals, the more they get involved in programs, the more they stay in programs, the less the recidivism rate. I’m reading a longitudinal study right now in terms of juveniles and one of the big findings of that study is that the parole and probation agents that were supervising the juvenile offenders were extraordinarily important in the success of the lives of these individuals, keeping them in programs, and at the same time, reducing recidivism. Self-report data indicates that their rate of involvement in the criminal justice system, or rate involvement in terms of new crimes, was a lot lower than when they were off supervision. So parole and probation matters, if it matters so much, why do we give them such huge caseloads and why is the turnover problem as high as it is and why is the stress problem as high as it is?

Adam Matz:  Yeah. I can kind of comment just a little bit.

Len Sipes:  Yeah, please.

Adam Matz:  I think it’s kind of interesting to kind of think about this in the terms of the way it feeds into itself. And you kind of think of all these different variables from an organizational level. So you’re thinking about stress or burnout or job satisfaction. These variables are tied together in kind of very specific ways, at least from what we’ve found, and they tie into turnover intentions or turnover behavior. And so what’s kind of interesting is if you have turnover, a lot of times what happens is the folks who leave, that’s put more stress on the folks who are still there. So if you already sort have a problem, people are leaving, it gets compounded even worse, because it increases the stress of those who stayed, because they’re having to pick up what’s left behind. So it’s kind of a feeding issue there as well, where once you get in that cycle it can be a little bit tough for folks.

Len Sipes:  Yeah. Well, I’ll say. I mean this is, Kirsten, this is an extraordinarily stressful job. You’re talking about, say, within my agency, okay, so we quote, unquote “only have 50 to 1”, but they’re involved in the lives of people with serious substance abuse problems, they’re involved in the lives of people with kids and we’re trying to reunite them with their kids. Some act out, some act inappropriately, some don’t show up, some are involved in new crimes. But I’ll go back to one story at a conference we did for women under supervision where a woman stands up in the middle of the crown and tells us, tells everybody there, hundreds of people there, that that night, that the previous night the woman who she lived with had a huge argument and they pulled knives on each other, and now she and her child is homeless. And she stood there and said, “Now, what are you going to do about my problem?” And so that’s the level of intensity that parole and probation people have to deal with in the lives of trying to cope with other human beings and at the same time cope with themselves.

Kirsten Lewis:  Yes, absolutely.

Len Sipes:  Tell me about it. Tell me –what does the research have to say?

Kirsten Lewis:  Well, in terms of, as you were alluding to, we have lots and lots of research talking about the motivational interviewing, the cognitive behavioral change, the thinking for change, really getting in and looking at how their thinking process is and helping to change that. The problem is that takes time. And when you’re – I mean we have a 60 to 1 caseload here in Maricopa County. And so when you’ve got 60 people on your caseload it takes time to go through those types of conversations and interactions when you’re doing actuarial risk assessments to make sure that we’re supervising people properly based on evidence-based practices. And it’s a good thing, but at the same time, it’s time consuming to write a case plan where we’re getting into the needs of the offenders and the obstacles that need to be addressed and trying to get the buy in so that the offender is engaging in that process and coming up with solutions as well. All of that takes time.

And then in the middle of that you’ve got somebody whose spouse pulled a knife on them and they’re homeless and you got to do something right now, you’ve got a parent calling whose kid is threatening suicide and you’ve got to rush off and do that, you’ve got to get all of your contacts entered into the computer by deadlines. I mean so there’re a lot of aspects to the job, many of which are emergencies to the 60 people on the caseload that you’re dealing with. So one of the stresses that I hear a lot from the officers is we’re learning all of these wonderful techniques to do evidence-based practices, but the problem is we don’t have the time to do it all.

Len Sipes:  And, Adam, that’s a common problem, but we’re going to leave that for the second half. Ladies and gentlemen, I want to reintroduce our guests. We have Kirsten Lewis. And she is really interesting. She’s a probation officer with Maricopa County. And like I said, she’s an adjunct psychology instructor at Glendale Community College, as well as co-owner of KSL Research, Training and Consultation. Adam Matz is back at our microphone. He is with the American Probation and Parole Association. We in parole and probation are extremely indebted to APPA and all the good work that they do leading the rest of us in terms of these issues and more throughout the United States. So to Adam’s organization and the Council of State Governments we are deeply appreciative. The show today is on stress and turnover in parole and probation.

Adam, I would contend that we talk a good game in terms of all the different things we want parole and probation agents to do. They generally have bachelor’s degrees. It’s not unusual for them to have a master’s degree. I’ve seen people with doctorates out in the field as well as in supervision or as well as in administration. But nevertheless, regardless of their education, regardless of their motivation, how do you deal from a turnover point of view with all the different things you have to do? One side of you is a law enforcement officer; another side of you is a social worker. I think all three of us would agree that evidence-based practices is one of the best things that have ever happened to the field. We all agree that evidence-based practices is the way to go. But, boy, does that place a tremendous psychological burden on the parole and probation agent.

And there’s a certain point, Adam, in terms of your study of turnover, people are going to say, “Hey, this too much and it’s too stressful and I’m now involved in this person committing a new crime and that sex offender reoffending and this person becoming victimized.” I think we’re talking about trauma and talking about the fact that some people were just witnessing vicariously all these different things and there’s a certain point that takes its toll and there’s a certain where people leave.

Adam Matz:  Yeah. And I think that’s exactly right. And really what I think you’re getting is the concept of burnout, that folks get burnt out after a while. So maybe to start off you’re really into the job and you’re able to kind of put in those extra hours, do the late night, maybe the late night midnight calls don’t bother you initially. But then over years or maybe even less than that it starts to wear on you. And a lot of folks do experience burnout and it becomes stressful. There’s a lot of different, in terms of the evidence-based practices and also all the grants, a lot of times for state agencies it’s kind of interesting, because that’s kind of an addition to their daily duties. And I know, given the grant projects that I’ve worked on with APPA, we do work a lot of times with different local agencies. And it is kind of an extra burden. But they all agree it’s worth it, it’s worth the effort to do it, but there’s no question that that’s an added burden sometimes, but the long-term benefit’s better. Now, ideally, when folks are working with agencies through grants they try to be sensitive to their needs in terms of that respect. But I think aside from that, the job in and of itself has its stressful moments. And trying to keep that in check definitely takes work. And I think Kirsten can probably speak more to actually maybe some programs that help folks with that.

Len Sipes:  All right, and I want to get back to Kirsten in a second. But you within your research I think you talked about it a little while ago. Compare parole and probation to other occupations and parole and probation seems to have much higher turnover than a lot of other organizations, correct?

Adam Matz:  Well, I think they’re kind of similar more to the institutional corrections than maybe law enforcement. Definitely more than other domains outside of justice, if that’s –

Len Sipes:  Right.

Adam Matz:  What you referred to. But as far as within the justice realm I would say police, institutional, and probation and parole are not too far off from each other. I think institutions might be a little bit worse actually.

Len Sipes:  Okay. And so you’re talking about on average, what, 20%, 30% did you say?

Adam Matz:  Yeah. 20% to 30%.

Len Sipes:  All right. Well, that’s a lot of turnover and that costs the state or the county or the municipality literally tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars over time and a lot of productivity lost and a lot of experience lost. So, Kirsten, we’re going to go back to you and say, “Okay, what do we do about it?”

Kirsten Lewis:  Well, I think one of the things that we do about is first of all start looking at the types of stress that the officers are experiencing. Because when I started to research this topic, in the stress that I was seeing, not only in myself, but in the people that I work with, most of the stress or most of the research is on the basic stressors of too much paper work, not enough time to do the job, not enough pay, those types of things, which are all legitimate stressors to our work for sure. But there’s a deeper type of stress that I don’t think it’s as easy to measure. You talked about how our job really is this combination of being law enforcement and social worker. And the truth is it creates at times a level of cognitive dissonance. Because I mean here’s the reality. My department has an option to carry a firearm. And one of the officers who carries a firearm he said to me after training, he said, “Here’s my job. Here’s what I do. I pull up to an apartment complex to go see one of my guys. And from a defensive tactics safety standpoint, I am running through scenarios in my head of, ‘If this scene goes bad, I’m going to pull my weapon, I’m going to have the offender in my sights, and I am going to shoot him.’ And by the time I get to the front door I’m going through my head all of the things I can possibly do to help this guy be successful.”

Len Sipes:  That’s quite a paradox.

Kirsten Lewis:  Absolutely. And that’s a stressor that I don’t hear people talking about. It’s a hard stressor to measure, because what that is is mentally taxing, to try to do both sides of the job. And by and large the social workers can invest all they want in the treatment and progress of the offender, but in the end they don’t have to arrest them, they don’t have to look to a family while we’re putting him in handcuffs and hauling him off to jail. The officers, the police officers on the streets may pull up to a lethal situation and they’re shooting a bad guy. For us, it’s somebody we know, it’s somebody we’ve worked with. We know their family. We know their kids. We know the consequences of this. And so we do both jobs, but they’re hard to do together. And so one of the things that I see happening in the course of careers is people tend to start to gravitate toward one end of that continuum of either being much more law enforcement oriented or much more social work oriented, because it is very, very difficult to stay in the middle with that balanced approach of running through scenarios and making sure defensively I can keep myself safe and at the same time trying to help the guy. I mean that’s a level of balance that quite frankly the research shows to be most effective, that balanced approach, but it is taxing to keep that balance.

Len Sipes:  I did, I worked when I was putting myself through college after I left law enforcement, I put myself through college by being a gang counselor in the streets of the city of Baltimore where I was out there on weekends in particular with the kids. And I went and did jail or job corps kids and I also ran a group in the Maryland prison system before going with the Maryland Department of Public Safety. So I’ve had direct work with individuals who are caught up in the criminal justice system.

Kirsten Lewis:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  Unbelievably stressful, unbelievably difficult, unbelievably – I’ve always said that I think they taught me more than I taught them. This is not an easy group to work with under any circumstances. If you add the paperwork, if you add the 150 to 200 to 100 to 1 ratios, it becomes almost impossible, stress seems to be inevitable.

Kirsten Lewis:  Yeah, absolutely.

Len Sipes:  So I mean, Adam, from the American Probation and Parole Association’s point of view, I mean does it ever get to the point where we simply say to states and localities and counties, “Look, you need to bring your workload levels down to reasonable amounts or it’s never going to work, you’re always going to lose people, and you’re never going to be able to fully implement evidence-based practices.”?

Adam Matz:  Yeah. That’s a great question actually. In fact, something we have been looking into is workload assessments, and that’s exactly what those are designed to help with. Because one of the problems a lot of agencies have expressed just anecdotally from talking to different folks that I’m in contact with, is that they feel like they’re overworked. They describe all these same issues – role conflict, role ambiguity, increased excessive caseloads, but they’re not able to quantify it in a way that they can share it with the legislature, share it with other folks, and make it known that, “We’re really kind of struggling here.” And that’s really where those workload assessments are just vital to not only show the work that’s being done, but also to justify that you’re actually doing, maybe you have 50 people, maybe 50 officers, but you’re doing the work of 100 officers. Workload assessment’s designed to help you get at that. And so that’s really one of the things that we’ve been looking at more recently and trying to assist some agencies with as well.

Len Sipes:  Kirsten, do you have, I’m not quite sure your research went this far, but can you recommend to the parole and probation administrators or the aides to governors or mayors who are listening to this program right now what they can do? They can’t magically do away with huge caseloads. What can they do to make the job less stressful for parole and probation people?

Kirsten Lewis:  Well, I think the first thing that has to be done is recognizing that keeping officers healthy ends up keeping them motivated, helps them continue to do a tough job, but in the end an incredibly rewarding job. I mean by and large our success rates are actually higher than our failure rates. And so –

Len Sipes:  Sure.

Kirsten Lewis:  When we can stay connected to that it’s a tremendously gratifying job to do. But we got to keep people healthy. And so you may have a great 60%, 70% success rate, but when your people go out and do horrible acts, that’s the stuff that takes an impact on officers. And so even though statistically those may not happen very much, I think we have to recognize that that is stressful and that the consequences are that officers start to check out, they start to check out emotionally, they start to shut down, they start to become robotic in the way that they do the job, they start to become cynical, burned out. I mean all of those things start to happen. And ultimately, their performance suffers. And as Adam talked about, when one performance starts to suffer from one officer all the others have to start picking it up.

Len Sipes:  It’s contagious. Yes.

Kirsten Lewis:  Yeah. And so I really believe that if we could start in a place of better addressing stress and wellness for the officers, that we keep them healthy, we keep them productive, we keep them here, we keep them doing the job, I think that’s your best route to reducing turnover, and ultimately, having a better outcome with the performances and the services that are provided to the offenders.

Len Sipes:  We have about a minute and a half left in the program. We all agree that parole and probation people are absolutely vital to the public safety, absolutely vital to community safety, absolutely vital to saving states and localities literally hundreds of millions of dollars over time to keep individuals from going back into the criminal justice system. So we agree to that and we agree that evidence-based practices are absolutely necessary.

Kirsten Lewis:  Yes.

Adam Matz:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  Adam? Okay. And so where’s the disconnect? Because I get the sense from reading both of your research papers that even though we all recognize this, there’s not a lot of involvement in the individual lives of parole and probation people to make sure that they’re taken care of.

Adam Matz:  Well, [OVERLAY]

Kirsten Lewis:  [OVERLAY].

Adam Matz:  Sorry. Go ahead.

Kirsten Lewis:  I was just going to say. I think that that’s actually pretty common. My research has spread to other organizations as well outside of probation. And I don’t think many organizations and many fields, professions, really take very good care of their people. There’s an assumption that somehow emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, everything, that that’ll take care of itself and we just are very focused with performance. So that’s where I don’t think we’re alone as a profession in not necessarily recognizing how wellness and health become paramount.

Len Sipes:  Adam, you got 30 seconds. Want to finish?

Adam Matz:  Yeah, sure. I just wanted to add to that. And I think that’s exactly right, is there’s been a lack of recognition that the folks who are working in the agency, they have needs too. And it’s easy I think, when you’re caught in the management of the agency, to kind of forget that you need to take care of those people. And so I think that’s a very important aspect. And I also wanted to point out the, you know, one of the things with the turnover too is making sure that people fit with the agency correctly as well. And we were talking about role conflict. Now, a lot of time the agency –

Len Sipes:  Pretty quickly, Adam.

Adam Matz:  Okay. The agency has an overarching culture to consider as well and sort of do people fit within that culture?

Len Sipes:  Adam, you’ve got the final word. Ladies and gentlemen, our program today has been on stress and turnover in parole probation. Kirsten Lewis. You can reach Kirsten at You can reach Adam with the American Probation and Parole Association – thank God for APPA – at appa/ Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. We appreciate your comments, we even appreciate your criticisms, and we want everybody yourselves a very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

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