Probation: Distinguishing Theory from Practice

Photo: Howard F. Dworman

By Howard Dworman

This article discusses the intent behind probation; why probation’s expectations are unrealistic the majority of the time; and what being on probation is really like.

Please keep in mind, this content is generalized; everything discussed does not apply to all situations or every person.

Probation is intended to focus on rehabilitation.  A person is “rehabilitated,” when they accept responsibility for their action(s), understand and agree their inappropriate behavior(s) caused them to be placed on probation, and proactively correct their behavior(s) and cognitive process to show conformity with society’s norm.”

Most important, here, is distinguishing theory from practice.

Theoretically, rehabilitation is an ideal and perfect solution to many problems in the criminal justice system.  Recidivism would not exist if all people placed on probation were successfully rehabilitated.  Of course, probation’s goal is to attain 0% recidivism.

You might be thinking, ‘what do you mean,’ “recidivism?”   Great thought!  Recidivism is another way of saying “re-offend.”  Recidivism occurs when a convicted person re-offends while serving their sentence (jail, prison, parole, probation).  Of course, 0% recidivism is a mere theory, an unrealistic theory at that.

Some people choose to live a criminal lifestyle and do not want to conform; to be proactive; to hold themselves accountable.  These factors are the most defeating for probationers: a person must want to ‘conform,’ ‘be proactive,’ and be held ‘accountable.’  At the end of the day, no one else can do that for another person.

In practice, as a rough estimate, less than 50% are rehabilitated.  Really, the most important question here is ‘Why?’

The vast majority of unsuccessful probationers do not lack the skills required to be successful.  Said another way, “rehabilitation” is not all-or-nothing.  Most people on probation accept responsibility for their behavior and hold themselves accountable.  They understand their choices put them on probation.  Many correct their behavior and thought process.  However, the failure occurs when the government (courts, prosecutors, probation officers) overwhelms a person with too many tasks, tools, and/or requirements at one time.

Few people on probation are able to attend counseling classes, work a full-time job (or get hired at all), earn enough money to disengage from all negative behavior, and report to their probation officer.  To be clear, probation puts a lot of extra responsibilities on a person.  A person who has already shown inability to conform with society’s “norm.”

Alternatively, sometimes probation fails to provide enough resources to a person for successful rehabilitation.  Most probation officers are over-worked.  Caseloads can range from 60-120 people, who are labelled as “a file;” “a case;” or “a client.”

Most treatment providers are contracted with the government.  Their caseloads are no different, except the number of people being treated by one person may be higher than the amount of people being supervised by a probation officer.  The biggest downfall is, no two crimes are the same; no two criminals are the same; no two people are the same.  Thus, when 10 people are placed in group therapy, if you are lucky, 3 of the 10 will get the treatment they actually need.

Well, at this point are you confused?  Are you thinking, ‘wait, you said the people who are helping have too much and then you said they have too little.’  Yes!  Exactly!  In fact, you are confused and rightfully so.

This is the reason the rehabilitation theory fails.  In case you don’t care, here is the reason you should: everyone is affected when probation fails to implement its intended design (by everyone I mean society; the courts; family members; friends; victims; and the probationer themselves).

Picture this:  imagine you are a up and coming, successful thirty-year-old, with a college degree and full-time job with a successful career.  You have a loving and supportive family.  Every once and awhile you do something that maybe totes the line between legal and illegal.

One day, you’re at work and break your left leg.  You see your doctor immediately.  The doctor decides your leg needs to be immobilized and puts it in a cast.  Your doctor explains, “based on the seriousness of the fracture, it will take at least two years for your leg to heal properly before you will be able to do anything like you used to.  Logically, you will need to learn to use crutches, maybe even a cane.  No problem, right?  You are perfectly capable of learning to change your behavior, right?

Fast forward three months.  You are getting it for the most part.  You start to accept that you did something you regret and you begin to accept responsibility for it.   You also accept your life just isn’t the same; you are moving so much slower than everyone else and you are limited on what you can do and where you can go.  Your employer tells you that you cannot continue to do your job because you are moving too slow.  Your family tries being supportive; they help you get around and give you rides, but they have their own problems and now you start to feel like you are becoming a burden.

By the fourth month you have decide its time to stop being a burden on your family and you are going to prove to your boss that you are just as good as you were before.  You kick things up a notch and push yourself a bit harder than you should.  You simply cannot afford to lose your job or your family.

Finally, after the fourth month you crack.  You cannot take it any more.  You decided you’re going to free your leg from the cast.  You throw the crutches on the floor and start to walk.  You’re thinking, ‘I’m fine!”  Another month goes by and you start to notice your leg is weak.  One day you wake up and try to walk.  The next thing you know is that you are lying face first on your floor.  You go back to the doctor.

The doctor scolds you for removing the cast because your leg did not heal yet.  The doctor puts your leg in a new cast and tells the cast must be on your leg for some additional time now to allow your leg to correct the original injury and the new one you created.  The doctor also reinforces the cast with a thin layer of steel so you cannot simply break it open again.  Finally, the doctor explains the new damage you caused will require going to physical therapy in order to rehab it.  To top it all off, the doctor tells you your leg will likely never function better than 75% of what it is supposed to.  You think to yourself, ‘Great! My life just got turned upside down” and you convince yourself life will never be the same again.

Welcome to life on probation!

You must learn to live your life completely differently and, if you don’t (if you fail),  you will all but certainly put yourself in a worse position than when you started.

Something you should recognize when you are thinking about all of this.   Most people on probation are uneducated and unable to find employment.  The majority do not have a strong family support network.

Now imagine yourself as a person who made a poor decision and engaged in criminal behavior.  As a result, you are left with no job and no family support.  Most people will keep “breaking off their cast” and fall back into a position where they give up; you accept this is your life now and no matter what anyone tells you, you start to ignore all your accomplishments.

Probation fails to give you the tools required to prevent the non-conforming behavior; your Doctor and Physical Therapist should have taught you to alternative ways to get around, to do things, to live a “normal life.”