‘We Know What Types of Supervision … Help Reduce Recidivism and Incarceration’

Arizona probation chief envisions smaller, less punitive, more effective system

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‘We Know What Types of Supervision … Help Reduce Recidivism and Incarceration’

Barbara Broderick has devoted most of her 40-year criminal justice career to improving state and local community supervision in Arizona and New York.

Since December 2000, she has served as chief probation officer of the Maricopa County (Arizona) Adult Probation Department, the nation’s sixth-largest, with more than 1,100 employees, a budget of $118 million, and about 54,000 individuals under its jurisdiction. She previously served as interim chief of juvenile probation in Arizona and as state director for adult probation for the Arizona Supreme Court, and she is past president of the American Probation and Parole Association.

This occasional series features interviews with influential leaders about how they became involved in criminal justice reform, how their views have evolved—sometimes in unexpected ways—and what's needed to sustain progress.

Q: What are some of the top issues in the U.S. probation and parole system?

A: Two key challenges are just how large the supervision population has become and how diminished the resources are for many of my colleagues across the nation. I’ve been fortunate because my county has been very supportive as we’ve grown, although we haven’t seen a corresponding increase on the treatment side or in housing and workforce development. Another major problem is that there is no established standard for an appropriate workload size for our officers. That means it varies by county and state, and our people are usually stretched thin.

I also believe we impose way too many rules on people under supervision. In our state, we have 21 standard probation rules, and number 22 can be whatever the judge wants to write in. And if you’ve been convicted of certain crimes, there are additional conditions, and it all gets to be overwhelming for people.

Finally, I think we need to look at all the fees and other financial charges we impose on individuals on supervision. Many of them really struggle and are shackled to this debt, and that’s not helping anyone.

Q: Incarceration has dominated the national conversation on criminal justice. What can be done to drive more attention and resources to supervision?

A: We need the research community and philanthropic organizations to pay more attention to us. In the media and academic realms, the focus is usually on the populations in custody because they are easier to study. It’s much harder to do research in the community, with all of the variables. But it can be done, and it’s important. What’s often overlooked in the discussion of our mass incarceration problem is that we’ve created this enormous and growing community corrections population as well.

Perhaps as a field, we need to do a better job of getting our message out. Part of that is organizational. Governors and legislators tend to focus on the prisons, which are a state function, and since we’re typically a county function, they sometimes forget we’re here.

Q: When did you realize that the approach to community supervision had to change?

A: It has been an evolution. When I became chief in 2000, we primarily responded to criminal behavior or violations. Given the research about the power of behavioral change, I knew there was a better way that would make our communities safer. Over time, we’ve changed our organizational culture to focus on guiding people toward successful completion of probation and teaching them lifelong skills. We started with risk assessments and have gradually moved toward becoming anchored in evidence-based practices. The old “trail ’em, nail ’em, and jail ’em” approach wasn’t getting us more safety, so we began creating a more success-oriented organization, with earned time credits and other incentives for early termination of supervision.

Q: Talk about some of the initiatives your agency has undertaken to increase the success of people on supervision.

A: Our overall approach has been to use research and evidence-based practices to change behavior, improve successful outcomes, and reduce victimization. Early in our evidence-based practice initiative, we took a close look at what our organization needed to do to successfully implement evidence-based practices. Full implementation of a validated risk assessment and differentiation of caseloads by risk level was foundational. We identified core competencies for officers and supervisors and aligned hiring, promotion, and performance appraisals with the application of evidence-based practices. We also invest in our staff with training and tools to manage stress.  

Another tool we use is graduated responses—a system of sanctions that increase in severity to address rule violations—as well as incentives and rewards to encourage people on supervision when they’ve done something well. Changing behavior is a process. Probationers may have relapses and setbacks rather than a steady path toward successful completion of their probation. Officers are prepared for this, and they help probationers work toward positive outcomes. They can increase or decrease the intensity of supervision as appropriate, and they reward program completions and other accomplishments with certificates, graduation ceremonies, or praise. Another incentive is the opportunity for some probationers to earn an early release from probation. Overall, our efforts have helped us improve outcomes considerably, with successful completions rising more than 10 percent between 2008 and 2016, while revocations [sending supervised individuals to jail or prison for violating the rules or committing a new crime] and new felony convictions declined.

Q: What strategies have you used to raise the quality of supervision?

A: Empathy is hard to teach. It’s hard to teach someone to believe that people can change. For us, it came down to how we were hiring, what we were looking for, and how we were testing and interviewing to identify the right type of person. The changes we’ve adopted have made a huge difference, and there are now far more people in our organization who believe in the potential for change and treat probationers with humanity and respect.

Quality is really about the people, the training they receive, and our common purpose. We’ve spent a lot of time getting people to understand our mission and demonstrating to them that this approach means less crime and fewer victims. In support of that, we provide staff with continuing education and pay them a reasonable salary. I believe organizational leadership plays a role as well. It’s important to be a risk taker and not be afraid to tackle difficult issues, so I try to practice what I preach. When I retire, I want my organization to be one that is data-driven, with staff who believe people can change, are respectful, and treat others with dignity. If we do that, we’ll get to our goals: less crime, fewer victims.

Q: Are you seeing a shift in how people view the mission of community corrections, in your county or nationally?

A: On the smaller stage, in our county and state, I’ve seen the shift, an embrace of the idea that people cansucceed and we can help them get there. Nationally? That’s tougher to say. There are a lot of counties out there, and some are more supportive of [probation and parole] departments than others. My wild guess would be that maybe a third of us are doing this work well.

I work in a very conservative state, one that had famous [former Maricopa County] Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Sheriff Joe used to say, “I put ’em in; she takes ’em out,” and he liked to call me “the little lady from probation.” But our state, while conservative, does believe in giving people a chance to change. And if you can find that inroad and show folks some of the data on what actually works, it’s a good place to start the conversation.

Q: What lessons can you share about working with people with differing views?

A: When I first started, we never gave voice to the people on probation or parole or who were involved with the criminal justice system. We are starting to learn, perhaps from the behavioral health field, to give voice to them, to listen hard, and to respond and change things up when necessary. This doesn’t mean we’re not listening to victims anymore. It just means there is also something to be learned from this group, and we should be open to it.

My feeling is that the more dialogue we all have, the more we share and break down barriers and find some common ground, the better our system will be and the safer our communities will be. So I try hard to work with my critics, and I’ve got ’em.

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: If I had the ability to wave a magic wand, I would focus far more on prevention and treatment than on punishment for people in custody. We just haven’t done enough on that end. We need to invest in communities that are impoverished. We need to stop over-policing poor neighborhoods. We need to connect people with the right treatment and interventions to meet their individual needs and help move them out of the system. And we need to divide discretion more evenly in the hands of judges and prosecutors so that there’s more balance and fairness in how decisions are made.

The research is clear: We know what types of supervision, interventions, and treatments help reduce recidivism and incarceration. Allocating public resources accordingly promotes justice, enhances public safety, and produces cost savings.

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