Magazine article Corrections Today

Reinventing Probation from the Top Down

Magazine article Corrections Today

Reinventing Probation from the Top Down

Article excerpt

A Look At Leadership

Much has been said recently in professional circles about the need to reinvent probation. The discussions, for the most part, focus on the need to change the traditional paradigm for doing business. The paradigm shift that is called for would move probation from a bureaucratic, process-oriented function to a publicly relevant and results-driven enterprise. Many, if not most, practitioners are embracing the new paradigm. Yet, one of the major concerns expressed by practitioners at the line staff level can be summed up by a frequently heard comment: "This all sounds great; now who is going to sell my judge on it?"

Judges often are the CEOs of locally administered probation departments. Even when they are not the CEOs, as is generally the case in probation departments administered by executive branches of government, they frequently establish policies that reflect their views on probation services. Because of the role judges play in setting the tone and creating policy for line staff, they serve as the fulcrum of the day-to-day practices of probation agents. Ultimately, these practices provide the basis for public assessment of the usefulness of probation as a sentencing option and correctional strategy.

It follows, then, that it is essential to take extreme care when selecting individuals to assume CEO functions in probation organizations. The importance of leadership as an antidote to irrelevant bureaucratic processes was discussed extensively in a 1998 article by the author. Leaders ultimately are responsible for the quality of service provided by probation departments. A good point of reference on this issue is J.Q. Wilson's book, What Governments Do and Why They Do It.

While it is relatively easy to talk about reinvention at the street level, it is difficult to talk about reinvention at the leadership level. For example, the manner in which judges who lead probation departments are selected -- through popular election or gubernatorial appointment, as opposed to relevant values, skills and credentials -- generally is treated as a forbidden topic of conversation. No serious reinvention effort can succeed, however, without a professional willingness to discuss all the key components that go into shaping the public relevance or irrelevance of probation services -- there simply cannot be any sacred cows.

This is not to deny that there are excellent judges currently serving in leadership positions who are guiding their probation organizations in ways that are pertinent to public desires. However, the current method for choosing leadership at the judicial level is haphazard rather than directive. The result is that, although there are judges whose main thrust is to increase the public relevance of probation, there also are judges who have little knowledge or interest in probation services.

Defining Public Relevance

Judicial and correctional systems often are administered without regard for the specific value sets or knowledge bases that are necessary at the leadership level for effective functioning. Of course, the entire matter of "effective functioning" cannot be adequately conceptualized without a definition. Once determined, however, it is clear that individuals who possess particular values and knowledge are in a better position to administer publicly relevant judicial and correctional services.

It is a hallmark of judicial and correctional history that key policy leaders -- including judges, parole board members and correctional administrators -- come from a variety of backgrounds. As evidenced by the many judicial leaders of innovative probation departments, in some instances, there is an appropriate match between the values and knowledge of the individuals selected and their positions. In other instances, the mismatch is apparent and often has unfortunate consequences. In the final analysis, the question that must be answered is: Can just anyone set an appropriate course for the probation profession? …

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