Probation Officers Could Help the 'At-Risk'

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Recent reports have confirmed that the school-dropout plague now extends down into junior high schools. It is more clear than ever that our schools are in serious trouble and need more help than is available within the education system.

But public education is only one of the many vital institutions that are unable to keep pace with demands imposed on them by a rapidly growing society. And just as the problems of schools, social services, and criminal justice are interrelated, so should be the solutions.

The workload of most institutions charged with keeping society on an even keel has increased enormously, while their resources have remained static or been reduced. But merely increasing the resources of some of those systems as they are now configured would not enable them to serve the people adequately. The crises created by child neglect, drug abuse, school dropouts, gang violence, and the growing population of career criminals clearly illustrate the need for us to re-examine what public agencies are doing to fulfill their commitment to society.

I propose that we begin by re-examining the role of the criminal-justice system, with the intent of encouraging greater networking of its resources with other social systems. The Los Angeles Unified School District's enormous dropout rate is a prime example of a social disorder that the criminal-justice system should be helping to address.

As it now functions, the criminal-justice system is missing the mark by an even wider margin than is the education system. Perhaps the probation department provides the worst-case example of a criminal-justice agency overwhelmed by an impossible mission that prevents it from addressing tasks at which the chances of success would be much higher. The failure of the Los Angeles school district to keep kids in school is alarming. But that failure pales in comparison to the probation department's inability to control its charges--career criminals who are on probation.

The reason for this failure is simple: The probation philosophy is outmoded. The sys6tem needs to be totally redesigned to direct the probation department's efforts toward the young and vulnerable population, including school dropouts, rather than toward society's dropouts.

It's time we put the authority for enforcing the conditions of probation with the police officers who witness violations firsthand. It is ludicrous to assume that convicted persons will comply with probation conditions when one probation officer is trying to handle hundreds of them. It would be far more intimidating for them to realize that all police officers are monitoring their behavior, are informed of the conditions of probation, and have the power to enforce the conditions immediately.

Rather than being perceived as an alternative to jail, probation status should be viewed as an extension of incarceration, an "out-prisoner" status. It is essential that the subject realize that he is still under the control of the criminal-justice system through police monitoring.

The benefits of these proposals are obvious. Families, schools, and communities would support our efforts when they see that we have put some teeth back into the handling of out-prisoners, who constitute 80 percent of our convict population. This new approach would also encourage probationers to resist peer pressure, justifiably using the enforcement threat as reason to abstain from criminal behavior.

Although this proposed change might initially place a greater burden on our jail facilities, it can reasonably be assumed that a stronger probation system would eventually reduce the need for additional prison facilities because probation would be a viable alternative to incarceration.

This revision would also be a first step in addressing the issue of real rehabilitation.

What is now called the probation department should not be downgraded in importance. Far from it. Rather, the department's mission should be redefined and its efforts redirected.

The probation department's efforts are now aimed at the tail end of the criminal-justice process; there, in dealing with society's failures, it has failed. But with the police assuming much of the responsibility for monitoring the conduct of out-prisoners, probation officers could devote energy to preventing individuals from entering the criminal-justice system. One good way to start would be by helping keep 8,600 Los Angeles junior-high students--the number that dropped out last year--in school.

Youngsters identified by police, school officials, and other agencies as "at risk" could be referred to probation personnel for counseling, training, and other preventive measures. In other words, we can shift the focus of a powerful force toward the prevention of crime and diversion of our youths from criminal careers.

Combining this considerable resource with educational and other social-service providers in a coordinated effort could keep young people out of the justice system, reduce the school-dropout rate, provide greater parental responsibility and control, and improve the chances of many at-risk youngsters to share in the benefits of this wonderful country.

Vol. 09, Issue 19, Page 21

Published in Print: January 31, 1990, as Probation Officers Could Help the 'At-Risk'
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