I recently was ordering at a midtown Shake Shack when the cashier noticed my lapel, which was affixed with a United Probation Officers Association pin. He asked if I was a law-enforcement officer, and when I responded that I was a Probation Officer, his eyes lit up.
He said he’d recently been arrested and was now on probation. He credited his Probation Officer for helping him land a job, reconnect with family, and get his life back together.
There was a sense of pride in this man’s voice. Pride that he had worked to put himself on the right path, pride that he was earning a living, and pride that he was contributing to his community. He also was grateful to his Probation Officer who allowed that to happen.
For thousands of New Yorkers, and millions across the country, the difference between re-engaging with the criminal- or juvenile-justice system and staying out of prison is an effective Probation Officer.
Probation Officers serve as the heartbeat and conscience of the criminal justice-system, exercising keen judgment and discretion. Every day we must balance the need to give the men and women on probation a second chance and provide them with the support they need to stay in their communities with the need to keep our neighborhoods safe.
When we are successful, we give men, women and youth involved with the criminal-justice system a deserved second chance and save the city and state tens of thousands of dollars for every person we stop from going to prison. This is a challenging but incredibly vital job.
We hear much discussion nowadays about how to break the school-to-prison pipeline and reform the criminal-justice system. Countless different voices engage in this conversation, including police officers, district attorneys, correction officers, clergy members and advocates. But when these debates take place, the voices of Probation Officers must be heard, too.
As the president of the United Probation Officers Association, I lead a union of more than 800 professionals with college degrees—including Probation Officer Trainees, Probation Officers and Supervising Probation Officers—across New York City.
We work every day with men, women and youth who have been involved in the criminal and juvenile-justice systems. This includes providing opportunities in education, employment, health services, family engagement and civic participation. We provide counseling to probationers, individually or in groups, to help them deal with problems like substance abuse. We make home visits to individuals under our supervision, and to friends, relatives, community agencies, employers, former employers, churches, schools, law-enforcement agencies, and others to monitor their adherence to the conditions of their probation. In Family Court, Probation Officers work in the adjustment units, where youth are offered services, which is crucial for “Raise the Age.” These supports prevent probationers from falling through the cracks and potentially becoming incarcerated.
We are also the front line to the criminal-justice system, as we prepare intake and investigation reports for the courts. As New York State peace officers, it is our responsibility to enforce the law when a probationer poses a threat to themselves or others.
Probation Officers in New York City are meeting new challenges as a result of Raise the Age reforms which have resulted in more juveniles being under our supervision, while my members are being paid less than their colleagues in neighboring counties. At this time, it’s imperative that their union be protecting their interests.
It’s for this reason we recently have taken the City of New York to court twice to force the city to relinquish pay records that we are certain will illustrate how our Probation Officers, who are mostly non-white and female, are being paid disproportionately less, and to challenge the city’s recent promotions that circumvented city and state law and civil-service rules.
It’s crucial that the city support Probation Officers. People who have been involved in the criminal justice system can find meaningful employment, reconnect with loved ones and contribute to their communities. In order to give them that opportunity, we need to make sure they have the support of a talented, educated and dedicated Probation Officer.
Without these Probation Officers, we are doomed to fail the men, women and youth in our care and the neighborhoods they call home.
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