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You ever heard of “community corrections?”

If not, you have heard of probation and parole. Well, now they are called “community corrections,” along with any other type of sanctions or punishment that doesn’t happen in a prison or jail. Yes, we are moving into the era of “community corrections,” where probation, parole, house arrest, diversion programs, and halfway houses all have a new clean name…that no one can agree what it means.

Well for starters, your PO may now be your CSO…Community Supervision Officer. Sounds like he or she is serving the community. Maybe yes, maybe no. In some places, it’s the same old same old, with a new title. In other places, there is a real effort to integrate things like probation and parole into real communities. In New York City, for example, Community Supervision offices are actually in real communities, like Harlem, South Bronx and Brooklyn, where people live, and community leaders are asked to work with Parole Off…er…Community Supervision Officers to help facilitate successful reentry.

In Georgia, CSO’s are required to be in the neighborhoods, and interact with families to be more supportive of reintegration into society, and ditch the “trail ‘em, nail ‘em, and jail ‘em” attitude that too many PO’s have brandished over the years. That’s the kind of attitude that locks up people for what is called a “technical violation,” not a new offense, but a failure to comply with probation or parole terms such as paying fines or finding a job (guess a, those two are related!). Failure to appear for an appointment is a technical violation which occurs sometimes because you have to take off from work, which can get you fired, then see “paying fines” above.

Three things are true…(1) the system remains punitive before, during and after incarceration. You have to get a job, and those are hard to find without a criminal record. Tying freedom to finances is similarly punitive. The New York Times recently published a study of diversion programs which revealed the difficulty of poor people to pay the fines and costs associated with staying out of jail, and the prosecutorial discretion as to who gets into a program and who goes to jail for the same offense! Those who qualify for the programs are part of “community supervision,” and they are often supervised more tightly, resulting in higher levels of revocations. We have to work to change the system.

(2) probation/parole/community supervision officers are like a box of doughnuts…all shapes and sizes in a cramped space. Despite their working conditions, many genuinely care about their clients. Others don’t care, and still others “trail ‘em, nail ‘em…” you know the rest. I’ve had PO’s call me Mister, I’ve had PO’s cuss me out. Most have minimal training compared with the goals originally set for the office, which concerned helping people make the transition home, not service as “mini-police” to rack up violations. If “community supervision is going to be effective, it will be measured by success stories of those in transition, not in how many people get caught.

(3) you and I who may still be on paper (I have 113 days left on paper as I write this) have a responsibility as well. I may not like the way I am held accountable five and a half years after getting out, but part of that is that I don’t like accountability in any form. I’m a GDI (google it) and nobody tells me what to do. One thing they tell me to do when I talk like that is to grow up…because accountability is part of being an adult, whether it’s accountability to my job, my community of my family. When the NY Times article talked about one case where a mother of five faced revocation of her diversion program because she couldn’t afford it, I wondered where was the father of five…or father(s)? IJS. She raised your kids, but you don’t have a responsibility to their mother?

If there is no “community” in “community corrections” it’s just parole and probation, diversion and house arrest with a smooth name. And I’ve had enough with rough stuff with smooth packages. We need real personal and community participation in community corrections because “community” is not a title, it’s where we live. And we need all hands to be accountable from arbitrary prosecutors and legislatures to cramped line officers for how people are given second chances. We need change…and we are all accountable.

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