By Dr. John Paitakes Professor Emeritus, Criminal Justice – Seton Hall University
There are over eight million people under correctional supervision in the United States. This is more than any other country in the world. Over two million are incarcerated; approximately two million are on parole and more than three million are on probation. Dr. Paitakes has worked as a Probation Officer, served on the New Jersey State Parole Board for almost ten years where he has interviewed over seven thousand inmates. He has written numerous articles on a variety of criminal justice issues and participated as a criminal justice expert on EBRU Television, numerous podcasts, WCTC Radio and Fox News Television.
The criminal justice system encompasses more than just law enforcement; probation, parole and corrections are all integral parts of the criminal justice system that interact on a regular basis with law enforcement. Probation, parole and corrections fall under the corrections umbrella. During my years of being involved with the criminal justice system I have found that most citizens, including legislators and politicians, are not completely aware of the differences between these two aspects of community corrections.
Probation officers are normally under the jurisdiction of the courts, however, in some states they are under the corrections department. If an individual is found guilty of a crime and it is not of a serious nature and he or she does not possess a serious prior record, the individual most likely would be placed on probation for at least one to five years. This is a sentencing alternative for the court. He or she would be assigned to a probation officer and a standard set of conditions (i.e., reporting on a regular basis to an officer, paying financial related matters, maintaining a job or attending school, not associating with other probationers, refraining from any other criminal activity, etc.). Failure to comply with the conditions or continuing in criminal activity would result in a violation of the conditions and the individual could be resentenced or given additional conditions. The main function of the probation officer is to assist the individual in becoming a law-abiding citizen. The officer would assist the individual in securing employment, finding housing if needed, and directing him or her to counseling for any specific problems. Most of what probation officers do on a daily basis is that of social workers. Probation officers in most states do not carry weapons. An officer would most likely have a caseload of anywhere from fifty to over one hundred persons under their supervision. They work very closely with police, social workers, psychologists, prosecutors, judges and a number of other community personnel and agencies.
The parole officer’s role is very similar to the role of the probation officer in that he or she supervises offenders in the community. The major difference is that in order to be under parole supervision, one must have served some time incarcerated. The parolee is then released early from prison due to a positive adjustment in the correctional setting and he or she must serve the remainder of the sentence under supervision of a parole officer. The parole officer monitors his or her clients and assists them to reenter society. Most of what he or she does is similar to social work, counseling, housing security, employment and related community services. In some states the parole officer is also classified as a law enforcement officer with the ability to carry a firearm and have powers of arrest. As we continue the trend of reducing the incarcerated population, we are creating and offering more alternatives and programs other than incarceration. It should be noted that this can vary from state to state depending on budgets, philosophies and politics. Therefore, probation and parole will be more utilized in the future. More resources and personnel will have to be provided for these alternatives as they will assist in reducing the overall crime rates. In recent years there has been a closer working relationship among probation, parole and police officers as they are all working with a similar population. Sharing information and services helps to improve their roles. One may notice probation or parole officers riding along with police officers at times.
Local jails and prisons are staffed by correction officers. Their functions are not only to supervise this population and keep society safe but also keep inmates safe and treated humanely while incarcerated. They must be provided with reasonable medical care both physically and mentally. This has been a herculean task particularly at this time due to the pandemic. Correctional staff must try and fulfill the following roles: counselor, custodian, mentor, security officer and other important functions. The preparation for this most important and demanding role is a high school diploma, passing a physical and psychological exam and attending and completing a training academy. There is a fair amount of turnover in this position as many correction officers use the position as a “stepping stone” to securing a position in law enforcement. Ongoing training varies from county to county and state to state dependent on budgets and philosophies of various administrators. The recent pandemic has placed a major responsibility on the correctional system nationwide. Jails and prisons were not adequately prepared for this. There was insufficient PPE’s (personal protective equipment) and training of staff to deal with sanitizing, maintaining social distance, medical and psychological issues and numerous other unforeseen repercussions of this event. Collateral consequences also had to be addressed with family members of the population in addition to correctional personnel.
It should be noted that although the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, there is an increasing trend to lower this for the less serious offenders. A number of programs, legislation and alternatives to jail or prison have come about during the past few years. Criminal justice reform policies include less mandatory sentences, changes in “3 strikes you’re out” a revised bail system, and increases in community based alternatives to name a few. We have made significant reductions in the incarcerated population at both the federal and state level. For example, in the New Jersey State prison population we have reduced the population from over 30,000 several years ago to just under 19,000 and it appears that this number will be further reduced soon. In addition, as a result, several states are closing prisons.
Recruiting correctional staff is challenging for several reasons. As previously stated, some use it as a temporary position until they can secure another position. The onset of the pandemic has made it even more of a risky position due to the lack of social distancing not always able to be instituted, thereby increasing the possibility of contracting the virus. Salary levels vary from state to state and are not generally very attractive. Correction officers are expected to fulfill a variety of different roles and may not be adequately prepared or trained to accomplish this. Most states do not provide any further educational reimbursement to encourage officers to secure more than the high school diploma requirement. Even college students majoring in criminal justice very rarely choose corrections as a career. It is critical that a correctional institution has staff that represents the diversity of their population and this isn’t always possible, therefore, additional efforts have to be taken to meet this issue.
When reviewing the history of law enforcement there has been a number of significant changes in the past fifty years. When one looks back during the 1960’s era you will note it was a very tumultuous time. There was the Vietnam War in which many citizens were not in favor of and therefore, a number of demonstrations and riots took place. We lost over 50,000 soldiers in the war. President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy were assassinated. There was civil unrest in major cities all over the country. A police officer was stomped to death by an angry crowd in Plainfield, New Jersey. Police tactics at that time were heavy handed. Use of dogs, water hoses, tear gas and batons were used readily by police. A number of demonstrators were injured as well as police. As a result of these events there was further training in crowd control which led to less aggressiveness used by law enforcement. Criminal justice was instituted as a stand alone major in many colleges and universities; prior to this it was incorporated as part of sociology or political science.
Training and education tend to assist in professionalizing a position. Police academies over the years have increased the number of weeks in training to approximately twenty-three weeks. Some police departments now require a two-year college degree in a related science and a number of them even require a four-year degree. Presently we can observe a smaller number of departments in which some officers may possess a doctorate and even a law degree. Instead of a job, it is now a profession. The federal government offered a program in the 60’s and 70’s –LEEP (Law Enforcement Educational Program). The program offered tuition paid education for any individual working in criminal justice and the opportunity to enroll in college to pursue further degrees for a two or four-year degree or a masters or doctorate. If the applicant maintained a certain grade average and stayed with the criminal justice agency for three years they would not have to pay back the government. Most individuals who completed their further education stayed with their organization and many rose to higher administrative positions in their agencies and therefore, did not have to repay the government. The monies ran out after a period of time and the program was not offered again.
Starting salaries have risen significantly, however, will vary dependent on geographic areas and economic conditions. Health benefits and pension plans seem to be quite comprehensive. Some departments may even offer partial or limited tuition reimbursement. Research has shown that officers who possess college degrees have fewer citizen complaints, fewer disciplinary actions and are less likely to use deadly force. Based upon teaching numerous students pursuing a degree in criminal justice, I have found that many of them are dedicated to helping people in addition to enforcing laws. Like many other fields of work, unfortunately there are a number of “bad apples” in any organization. The officer is held to a higher standard, as they should be, dealing with life and death situations many times.
Summary and Recommendations:
It is apparent we are at a critical point in the history of our country and must improve and address further improvements in our criminal justice system. There have been a large number of protests locally and nationally from diverse sectors of the population regarding our police and criminal justice system. As I have worked for over five decades in this most interesting and important field, I suggest the following recommendations. This is clearly not all the recommendations that can be considered, but it’s a starting point.
- Recruiting qualified personnel in criminal justice is crucial. It is important that we strive to secure a more diverse cross section of population to consider a career in criminal justice.
- Proactive vs. Reactive: We have to improve our means of reacting to issues and problems by dealing with controversial issues before they escalate. Futuristic planning is a must.
- Community Policing: We must increase the number of community policing trained officers. Community policing is a philosophy that promotes partnerships with community members that promotes problem solving.
- Social Services: Social workers should be employed on a full time basis as part of police departments to assist and work with police officers.
- Funding further education: Funds should be made available for those employed in criminal justice to further their education. This can be grants from the state or federal government to encourage personnel in criminal justice to pursue further education.
- Student Interns: The vast majority of colleges and universities offer internships at worksites related to their field of study. A few are paid but most can receive college credits also. This can be a great learning experience for the student and also the organization. The organization can also receive insight from the next generation considering entering a particular field. It is also a great recruitment tool for the organization.
- Volunteers: A number of criminal justice organizations will recruit volunteers from the community to work and assist for specified hours during the work week. Many volunteers could be retirees or citizens wanting to learn and assist their local criminal justice agency. This can be a great learning experience for the volunteer and also for the agency. The agency receives free assistance perhaps in clearing up some backlog in certain areas and educating the public about their agency.
- Improving and Increasing Critical Programs: I am not in favor of defunding the police, neither in complete disbanding of a department or reducing their budget. I am in favor of improving and increasing critical programs for a community based upon their needs. Perhaps this can be provided by federal or state governments as well as contributions by private companies.
- I would strongly recommend that protesters found guilty of an offense, be ordered to complete fifty hours of community service. They could be assigned tasks such as cleaning the streets of debris after a demonstration. This is a form of “Restorative Justice” by having the offender help to restore the community to the way it was. Community service would also save the community money as those ordered to community service are not paid as compared to a town’s maintenance workers.
NB: These recommendations are based upon my work experience and some of the programs I have been involved with during my several careers in criminal justice. Clearly, there are a number of additional recommendations that protesters, legislators, politicians and others are making at this time. We must give careful consideration to these recommendations and move on to improve this most critical field. The criminal justice system is not broken: however, it can be improved as all systems must over a period of time.
Dr. John Paitakes can be contacted at: [email protected]