Probation is often described as the “linchpin of the criminal justice system.” Yet for most Californians, Probation can have a singular meaning that does not accurately represent the full spectrum of all it does to protect our communities, reduce recidivism, restore victims and promote healthy families.
As we celebrate Probation Services Week this week, I have been reflecting on the Merced County Probation Department, which I have the privilege of leading. I’ve also been thinking of the department’s men and women, central to fulfilling our multifaceted mission. But what exactly does Probation do? I’ll explain:
Probation remains a misunderstood world – often confused with parole. Yet, Probation departments interact with and impact a significantly higher number of organizations, institutions and individuals. Probation itself is the most commonly used sanction in the justice system. Over the past decade, Probation has become even more vital. Probation employees are doing remarkable things, from safely managing difficult and dangerous offenders, to reducing recidivism and supporting victims.
Probation’s most unique feature is the span of the arenas in which it operates. Probation officers and juvenile institutional officers are peace officers whose goal is to uphold the law and protect the community as we supervise offenders. But an essential part of the probation mission is to help offenders successfully re-enter society and restore their lives.
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Probation is steeped in the latest scientific research about what works to change behavior. Our highest priorities are to: Lessen the chance of an offender reoffending, reduce recidivism and prevent future victims. When we are successful, the payoff is immeasurable, from the prevention of future victims and making our communities safer, to the value of saving a life and helping regenerate a member of our community. There are enormous and obvious cost savings for the entire criminal justice system when we succeed.
Probation runs Merced County Juvenile Hall (a locked detention facility) and Bear Creek Academy juvenile camp. Probation staff works tirelessly to safely supervise these youths, to prevent them from hurting one another or themselves and to comfort them when they face emotional instability because of trauma they have experienced. For too many of these youths, Probation staff are the most stable and mature adults they know.
Probation also has a lesser known but critical function. Before a judge imposes a sentence following conviction for a felony, the case is referred to the County Probation Department. Probation investigates the facts of the case and the offender’s background, and recommends an appropriate sentence. The court agrees with the recommendation in many cases. This is a tremendous vote of confidence to the men and women in the department and is further evidence of the unbiased and objective assessing of the law and facts that probation officers are entrusted with in the criminal justice system.
Employees of the Merced County Probation Department take great pride in their work. Probation protects the community, supports the court, assists victims and helps rehabilitate offenders to reduce recidivism. Through recognition by local county and state leaders, Merced County Probation is enhancing its ability to be a force for positive change. Probation does not typically seek nor receive public attention, but as the linchpin of the criminal justice system, it is vital to the entire community.
Jeff Kettering is Merced County’s chief probation officer.