Four and a half million Americans are on probation or parole — more than twice the nation's jail population. Parolees and probationers are required to check in regularly with officials, who are charged with helping them rebuild their lives.
But being a parole officer is tough work. "The pay is poor. The benefits are expensive. The hours are long," says former New Orleans parole officer Jason Hardy.
Hardy initially entered the field because, he says, it "seemed to be something that you could get involved with and really make a big difference in a short period of time."
Once on the job, he was charged with supervising about 220 people — four times the recommended caseload. He says that nearly all of individuals he worked with had needs he couldn't meet — for food, housing, employment, medical care, mental health counseling and drug treatment. Some with addiction were so desperate for treatment they would show up at the parole office knowing they would fail a drug test and be sent to jail, because it was the only free detox center available to them.
"Many times, the jail did not seem like the best answer or even a decent answer, but it was the only one that we had," Hardy says.
Hardy came to believe that the nation's failure to provide adequate probation and parole programming represents the single greatest missed opportunity in the entire criminal justice system. He writes about his experiences in the book The Second Chance Club: Hardship and Hope After Prison.
On how he managed his overwhelming caseload
You manage it by triaging and ... following your own instinct. Some of it is done by risk assessment. So risk assessments are a hot topic in criminal justice now. ... Whether it's with bail or with probation, parole and even with prison, you look at an individual's record, you look at his socioeconomic status, you look at his educational attainment, his history of mental health issues, and you essentially try to assign some number that tells you how likely a person is to recidivate.
Obviously, this stuff can be problematic, because these are algorithms. They're essentially making educated guesses. But ultimately, what you can do is you can look at 220 people and say, we think that these are the 45 to 50 who stand the best chance of harming themselves or someone else, and so those are the people you spend most of your time on. So where you end up with in a caseload of 220 is about 50 who are getting something that looks like real supervision and 100-something who are getting nothing at all. And in that "nothing at all" category, there are probably 35 to 40 who are in warrant status, where they just kind of disappeared. And we don't know where they are. We're not really looking for them.
On conducting home inspections
It certainly can be intrusive. Like a lot of other things on the job, it sort of depends on how you carry yourself when you do it. ... If you show up, if you knock on the door politely, if you if you treat everybody with respect and if you say that you're more or less there to have a conversation and that really what you're trying to do is get to know this person better so that you can help him, then it generally goes pretty well.
On having to talk with family members when someone in his caseload dies of overdose
That was one of the hardest things to do on the job. I don't think we were ever the ones who were initially giving the news, but we would always go over there after the fact and have some kind of a debrief in as much as that was possible. And most parents knew the system. They knew that, again, we didn't have that many resources, that we were doing the best we could. But some came right at us and said, "Hey, look, if nothing else, your job was to keep my son or daughter alive. And you failed to do that." And you can know logically that a lot of these problems predate you, that you maybe weren't the cause of them, but a part of you can't help but agree, that if nothing else at the end of this supervision period, this person should still be walking and breathing — and to go and have to answer for that it really takes its toll.
On the barriers that prevent disabled people from getting social security
What happens normally when you call and try to get some kind of a public service for someone, is that you're told that you have to bring a lot of paperwork to a government building. And what I found with SSI is that the hurdles to getting it are such that many people who are truly disabled just can't possibly get over them. ...
As a probation and parole officer you might be able to make a couple of calls on his behalf. You might be able to give him a ride to his appointment. But what he really needed to get these benefits was a full-time social worker, and that wasn't something that we were able to do. But it was kind of a recurring theme where many of the social services that are set up to help people who are needy end up being out of their reach because there are so many hoops that you have to jump through in order to access them.
On being able to offer a more holistic context to judges, in hopes of preventing certain people from going back to jail
This is where probation and parole, I think, can really shine as alternatives to incarceration, because if you have the time to get to know the people on your caseload, what you can do is you can bring a decision maker — be it a judge or a parole board — a really holistic view of what this person is dealing with. So nine times out of 10, when a judge is making a decision about bond or frankly, about whether to put somebody back in jail, more or less what they have is a police report and then they have the word of a defense attorney and an A.D.A., both of whom are all so overworked and probably don't know a whole lot more than what's written in the police report. But the probation and parole officer, again, if he's had the time to get to know the person has been to the house, he knows the family, he knows the dynamic in there. And he may be able to give the judge or the parole board information that can lead to a more informed decision.
On how the creation of a "drug court" and a mental health court improved the system in New Orleans
I think it made a huge difference. ... Essentially there was just this vacuum of people who were on probation and just had no way to get mental health care. The outcomes of that are obvious. If you have mental health needs, you were living on the street, ultimately, more crimes are going to be the result. And whether you're hurting yourself or someone else, the cycle is just going to continue. So [a new] mental health court was this way that they could pull somewhere between 50, 100 people in, get them resources, get a lot of them housing and the recidivism rates in these programs just absolutely plummet. ... So that's something that I'm really excited about. And I really think it's kind of the future of community supervision.
Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.