Community Corrections: The Unusual Effort to be Spies

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Community Corrections Officers   Source: Department of Corrections Washington State

In the United States, the community corrections system was created to supervise certain offenders in the community, while also connecting them to social and rehabilitation services so they could better themselves. This movement towards community corrections was created under the notion that incarceration is not always appropriate and a rehabilitative approach could be more humane (Glaze & Bonzcar, 2005; Schmalleger, 2008). However, the treatment and rehabilitation approach of community corrections has found itself under attack and significantly diminished as the movement towards more punishment oriented criminal justice policies continues (Allen, 1981; Walker, 2011). For instance, conservative politicians created and espoused the necessity of the “lock’em up and throw away the key” philosophy, which is responsible for transitioning the community corrections profession from social work-based tendencies to another version of street-level law enforcers (Allen, 1981; Walker, 2011). This has directly impacted community corrections by shifting the role of the community corrections officer from one who balances supervision with social work towards a role that is now focused mostly on law enforcement. This also has directly impacted the community as more cops were put on the streets under the guise of being hired to help people reenter society after a term of imprisonment or to keep them out of a correctional facility altogether (Allen, 1981; Walker, 2011).

In the 1980s as the War on Drugs became a national focus, being tough on crime and drugs meant having more law enforcers on the streets. This led to community corrections officers being used as substitutes for typical police work (Byrne & Hummer, 2004; Chapter Two: Overview of Probation and Supervised Release Conditions, 2016; Walker, 2011). This changed the role of the community corrections officer from focusing on helping offenders to re-enter society or stay out of jail/prison to one of assisting law enforcers instead (Byrne, Lurigio, & Petersilia, 1992; Lynch, 2008). The movement towards policing in the community corrections field also can be seen in the attire and tools that community corrections officers began to use as they mimicked the clothing and tools of a police officer. It also became more difficult for community corrections officers to connect their clients with social services as employment, healthcare, parenting, drug abuse, and housing services were now being ran by underfunded state agencies and nonprofit organizations (Allen, 1981; Latessa & Smith, 2015).

This law enforcement approach to community corrections during the 1980s became even more entrenched in the 1990s and 2000s (Latessa & Smith, 2015; Walker, 2011). By the 1990s in the United States, mass incarceration was producing a large number of offenders on probation and parole. This massive increase in caseloads along with cuts in social services led to community corrections officers feeling overwhelmed (Glaze & Bonczar, 2005; Latessa & Smith, 2015). Another major problem facing community corrections officers was budgets were not increased to match the high numbers of people being placed on probation and parole. Instead, funding at this time was being diverted from community corrections to help supplement traditional police departments and courtroom professionals in arresting people and sending them to correctional facilities, which only served to increase the number of people under community supervision or incarcerated (Hanser, 2014; Latessa & Smith, 2015).

Unfortunately, things did not improve during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Conservative politicians continued their focus on crime control and brought these policies with them, which continued the influx of offenders entering the correctional industrial complex. The role of community corrections also continued to be focused on law and order as probation and parole officers during this decade were mostly receiving law enforcement training with very little education about the social barriers that offenders must endure and overcome to be successful upon reentry to the community (Hanser, 2014; Latessa & Smith, 2015; Walker, 2011). There also was an increased focus on the role of supervision as advances in technology were being used to more closely monitor and track offenders. For instance, probation and parole departments began contracting with third party security firms that could perform warrantless searches by using electronic devices to track offenders’ whereabouts, and even test for substance use (Hanser, 2014; Latessa & Smith, 2015; Walker, 2011). The move towards technology was viewed as a win for community corrections practitioners, as it relieved them from their daily duties and allowed them to concentrate more on providing information on offenders to law enforcement (Hanser, 2014; Latessa & Smith, 2015; Walker, 2011). However, the only human-to-human contact that remained in community corrections was checking up on offenders by connecting with employers, counselors, local police departments, and other citizens to ensure the probationer or parolee had the tools necessary to successfully re-enter their community. Currently, with the use of technology much of this contact can be bypassed with consent forms allowing the technology to monitor the probationer or parolee instead (Hanser, 2014; Latessa & Smith, 2015; Walker, 2011).

Today, those under community supervision face even greater obstacles and social barriers. For example, one’s ability to access social services has been greatly reduced through budget cuts and the focus of community corrections moving from a social work perspective to a law enforcement orientation. Offenders also are now forced to have every aspect of their lives intruded upon, even when their activities have nothing to do with the crimes that they have been convicted, through an increased reliance on technology to replace direct human contact and communication. This has created a situation where the constant search for infractions and technical violations has led to increased recidivism with many under community supervision being returned or sent to jail or prison. This outcome only further serves to destroy and disorganize the already impoverished neighborhoods many live in. Therefore, even though the goal of community corrections has been to provide a more humane approach to punishment, in the end it has increased the social harms that those under supervision as well as the larger community face.


Benjamin Bolton



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About Benjamin Bolton 3 Articles
Upcoming criminologist that prefers stoic analyses and cynical inquiries.

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