Thursday, February 4, 2010

Probation Officers & Guns

This article from the Silicon Valley Mercury News, examines the discussion about whether probation officers should be armed—as they wish to be—or not, as some criminal justice researchers suggest they shouldn’t be; as it would interfere with their rehabilitative role.

As in most cases involving this dichotomy, the ones on the ground—in this case the probation officers—should be given the largest role in the decision-making, as they are in closer touch with what is actually occurring within the relationship between probation officer and probationer.

An excerpt.

“Santa Clara County may soon equip a select group of probation officers with firearms for the first time — a move the probation chief describes as necessary for the protection of her employees.

“The push to arm probation officers who supervise more than 700 of the most serious juvenile and adult offenders returned to their communities has brought strong criticism from some justice experts. They say the overwhelming presence of a gun undercuts the officers' critical role connecting ex-offenders with treatment, jobs and education while they monitor the terms of their probation — a vital part of the job which is part-cop, part-social worker.

“But so far, union members and local elected officials appear to support the change.

"Probation officers have several roles and certainly rehabilitation is the first and foremost," said Sheila Mitchell, the chief probation officer who could make the decision on her own but is seeking broader approval in public meetings beginning this week. "It's a pretty serious thing to arm officers, so of course we're going to make sure we have the support of supervisors and the county executive before we move forward with arming."

“Santa Clara County officials say theirs is the last large urban county in California to arm at least some probation officers, following a spate of policy shifts in the last decade. San Mateo, San Francisco and Marin have added firearms to some officers' arsenal, but San Francisco's juvenile probation department has declined to arm officers.

“Mitchell's plan has been considered for two years, following a change in state law that gave counties the responsibility for supervising juvenile offenders leaving state prisons on parole. Although there are currently just 31 such parolees released or soon to be released to Santa Clara County, Mitchell said the prospect caused her to reconsider the department's long-standing practice of conducting field work unarmed. No significant injury or death prompted the change.

"I don't think it will increase public safety, but it will certainly aid public safety," Mitchell said of her proposal to arm about 10 percent of the department's 330 officers who oversee the highest-risk clients.

“Nonetheless, prominent criminal justice researchers reacted with alarm to the proposal. Barry Krisberg — a senior fellow at Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law whom Mitchell recently hired to analyze county ranch programs — called the plan a "very bad idea that should be avoided at all costs."

“Krisberg said police officers are armed and play strictly a law-enforcement role. But probation officers, who have the critical job of helping ex-cons reconnect with society, need a markedly different approach, he said.”