Apr 2, 2009

Meet Robert Walsh, U.S. Probation Officer

Robert Walsh is a United States Probation Officer and the Community Resource Specialist for the Southern District of New York. A member of the Upper Manhattan Reentry Task Force, Robert very kindly sat down with us to answer some questions about being a probation officer.

Please describe your role with U.S. Probation. What do you do and how long have you been with the agency?

I have been with US Probation since 1991 and have been an officer since 1996. I started off as a House Arrest officer. In our office, we have different specializations for the different court-ordered special conditions: this includes substance abuse, house arrest, community services, etc. House arrest is typically ordered for those probationers who committed a white collar crime, although it’s really decided by the judge on a case-by-case basis. House arrest could be ordered in lieu of incarceration, so that a defendant or offender has the opportunity to refortify their domestic situation. As with any offender on probation, a probation officer is charged with re-stabilizing the family and helping with education or employment placement when necessary. Ideally, these things will contribute to the goal of reducing recidivism.

After 16 years of house arrest work, I attended a training for offender workforce development specialist. This office formed a committee of employment specialists to assist offenders in need of educational or vocational training. In August of 2008, I was promoted to Community Resource Specialist, which means that I oversee that committee of people. In addition to managing my own caseload of probationers, I also deal with community-based organizations like STRIVE, the Center for Employment Opportunities, the Fortune Society, the Osborne Association, FEGS, and Workforce 1 to keep our partnerships active. Before we refer people to those agencies, we try to asses their needs both professionally and educationally, so that we can address and break down any barriers to reentry.

What is the most challenging thing about being a probation officer?

To be effective, you need to be professional and fair in your approach to each offender. Compassion is key -- you have to look at it like helping a fellow human being. For example, you have to look at violent cases and say, “Well, each one is an individual.” Lately, my most challenging client has been the client who has been in the system a few times. He’s likely middle-aged, without as many employment or educational opportunities. He has his own predeterminations about the system and its ability to help him. Sometimes I get them young, real raw – but you can work with them. The older ones form their hardcore opinions of the system and you have to convince them that you can help. They’re all told early on that they have to comply with their court-ordered conditions and those conditions are explained to them. When they aren’t compliant, you have to walk a fine line between law enforcement and social work: you have to assist them, but you also have to emphasize the importance of compliance. It’s like helping out a relative – you can keep giving them money when they ask, but they’ll never learn that way.

What is the most rewarding thing about being a probation officer?

My biggest asset as an officer is being fair. The probationers who look at it like they need help, they’re the most successful. I tell every client, “This is one chapter in your life. When the time comes that I’m not here, you want to wake up in the morning and feel good about your situation.” Building up their self-esteem is also a challenge. Many of them don’t know how to get up in the morning, how to dress, how to be on time, what proper hygiene is. But it’s not their fault – they never had support or structure to learn this stuff like we did. Sometimes, my heart really goes out to them. When you’re sitting down with somebody to put together a resume, you make them aware of what it is that they’ve accomplished in life. Yeah, maybe that job or training program you did was while you were incarcerated, but it still counts as work experience. It changes their whole view of themselves, gives them a sense of pride to see it on paper. They’re seeing for themselves that they can be better.

Sometimes I go to the graduations at substance abuse treatment programs. When you see somebody speak at their commencement ceremony, you feel a sense of pride. I’ve had times when people have thanked me in their speeches for getting them together. You see their families there – people who were hurt by their behavior – and you see them realize a sense of personal significance as a individual. When you see the family unit come together as a group at that moment, that’s when you know they’re going to be OK.

What motivates you to do your job everyday? How do you remain enthusiastic about your work?

The chance to help people on a daily basis and seeing firsthand the rewards of it at the end of the reentry process. It’s knowing that you made a difference in someone’s life. There are officers who get more out of the law enforcement side – I feel that when compassion reaps rewards, that’s gratifying. I also enjoy coming into contact with all the different people – I don’t think you could have a job with more diverse personalities. Sometimes I just have to laugh. I also enjoy the learning opportunities to meet officers from across the country, especially at conferences. I like to hear about what works in California or the Midwest, as opposed to New York. I find it fascinating that there are hundreds of people out there on a national level dedicated to this process. Over the years, the job has definitely changed for the better, especially with the information age. Computers and the internet have really improved our ability to research educational or employment resources in the community for probationers.

If you had all the resources you needed at your disposal, what kind of outcomes do you think you could achieve?

This is bold, but my primary goal would be 100% education and employment rate for the whole population we handle. I come from a background where both were emphasized: my mom was always like, “Education! Education!” and my dad was always saying, “What job do you have?” So I guess that’s where that comes from. My role with house arrest really involved the enforcement aspect – but what I do now probably fits my personality more, since I really want to see people achieve their educational and employment goals.

Is there anything else you want people to know about probation officers or probation in general?

Probation officers are truly the most dedicated, patient, and understanding group of people you could work with. We have a wide range of personalities, but we want to accomplish the same thing. I had this guy who fought with me every step of the way. He never wanted to comply with anything I told him to do. Last week, he finished his probation and came to my office with tears in his eyes. I asked why he was crying and he said that he wanted to thank me for caring enough to help him. It’s like having a child – the kid that’s the biggest hardhead in school becomes something because somebody came along and said, “You can do something in life.” That’s how I look at my job.

For a map of US probationers in Upper Manhattan, check out a recent blog post here.