On the Issues
Probation Officers: The Unseen Law Enforcement Agents
June 9, 2005
Ramsey County Probation Officer Dave Kosciolek knows that protecting the public is his first priority.
"Every day as I go to work, I review in my mind the most serious offenders on my caseload. It is my job to hold these offenders accountable, and I take this mission seriously," he states.
P.O. Kosciolek is one of my colleagues in corrections. As a fellow probation officer, I know that supervising offenders has become an increasingly difficult and challenging task. Historically, Minnesota has been a national leader in effective probation practice. However, growing caseload size and the ongoing mandates for additional probation services are beginning to seriously jeopardize the ability of probation officers to successfully supervise offenders.
Unlike states such as Wisconsin, which has almost three times as many persons locked up, Minnesota relies much more on community supervision. In fact, there are about 127,000 offenders - juvenile and adult - who are under community supervision.
When I first started working in corrections over 30 years ago, a probation officer's caseload size averaged around 40 to 50 clients. Currently, it is not unusual for a probation officer to have a caseload well over 120 persons. In the case of the "lower risk" offenders, such as some one with three or more DWIs, caseloads can skyrocket to as high as 400 to 500.
Probation officers are often the unseen law enforcement agent in the criminal justice system. However, the work performed is vital to preventing further victims of crime - and a return to jail for the criminal. The probation officer's knowledge about the offender, crime committed and resources in the community can pave the way to helping the offender make a successful adjustment to his or her home, job and community.
It should be a cause for concern for all of us that probation caseloads in Minnesota are exceeding the national standard by over twice the recommended size. According to the Department of Corrections, high-risk offenders in most of our counties receive too little direct, face-to-face contact per month. Although crime in Minnesota has declined over the past 10 years, the number of offenders under supervision continues to rise.
The legislature's increased attention to crime has also resulted in added responsibilities for probation officers. For example, new crime categories and enhanced penalties may have benefitted public safety but have also increased the length of time offenders are under supervision. And, mandated tasks for probation officers now includes DNA testing, compulsive gambling assessments, victim notification, domestic abuse assessment and investigations, neighborhood impact statements, and registration and assessments of sex offenders.
In addition, the growing number of women and girls in the offender population has created new issues and needs that often require more of probation officer's time and energy. Girls and women tend to be the primary caretakers of their children, and those children have multiple needs. Smaller caseloads are especially important with these offenders to sensitively address these multiple issues and help put an end to the cycle of crime, poverty, chemical dependency and abuse.
All of these issues - unfunded legislative mandates, more offenders, longer supervision times and new needs -- put tremendous pressure on probation services.
The solution lies partly in the State adequately funding probation services from a long-term perspective. Community supervision is much less costly and a much more effective correctional model than one that emphasizes incarceration. Remember, almost all prisoners get out eventually. Minnesota needs to make sure probation officers have the time and resources to keep our communities safe.