May 22, 2009

Meet Michelle Powell, US Probation Officer

Officer Michelle Powell has been a United States Probation Officer within the Eastern District of New York for twelve years. The United States Probation Department Eastern District of New York (EDNY) supervises federal offenders who reside in Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau, Suffolk, and Staten Island. A member of the Upper Manhattan Reentry Task Force, Officer Powell sat down with us to discuss her work supervising probationers and helping them secure employment.

First of all, can you tell us a little bit about how you got your start at US Probation?

During law school, I specialized in criminal and family law. Upon receiving my juris doctorate, I chose not to practice law. Instead, I applied to work at US Probation based upon a friend's referral. I was always fascinated by law enforcement and wanted to make a direct impact on people lives.

I originally started in the pre-sentencing division of US Probation. Federally, we have two divisions of probation: pre-sentence and supervision. In pre-sentence, probation officers write detailed reports about offenders who have been found guilty of a federal offense and are to be sentenced by a judge. These reports include information about the instant offense, the offender's involvement in the crime, and any prior charges or convictions. Additionally, we collect information about the offender’s family, mental and medical history, substance abuse, employment history, and education. Basically, we’re trying to get a full picture of the individual in question so that a judge can make an informed sentencing decision. We also have to offer a sentencing recommendation based on legal guidelines – so we are the eyes and the ears of the court prior to sentencing.

Then there is the supervision division, which is what probation officers do after sentencing has occurred. They monitor and supervise the person who receives probation or has been released (much like a parole officer). Supervision officers make sure that offenders follows their court mandated conditions. Most of our federal offenses are white collar crimes – so we’re dealing with people who have done Counterfeiting, Bank Fraud, Illegal Firearm Sales, Money Laundering, immigration violations, drug trafficking, etc.

After working in pre-sentence, I went into supervision because I wanted to be well-versed in both departments. Currently, I specialize in workforce development and reentry, and I’ve been supervising people for the past nine years. At any given time, I can have a caseload of 30-60 people.

You are the Offender Workforce Development Coordinator for US Probation, Eastern District – what does that involve?

In March 2007, I volunteered to become the Point of Contact for the National Defendant/ Offender Workforce Development Association. Our national office sent out a mandate to the districts that something needed to be done to address workforce development for offenders. As the point of contact, I’m the designated person to coordinate workforce development initiatives in the Eastern District of New York. Since then, I have assisted in the development of "AIM HIRE," the Offender Workforce Development Program for the Eastern District of New York. It’s kind of a play on words: we want our probationers to aim higher and we also want them to get hired.

As the AIM HIRE Workforce Development Coordinator, I receive referrals from other officers for offenders who are in need of a job. When the offenders come for an appointment, I assess whether they are job-ready or need additional skills to become job-ready. For those who need additional skills, which is the majority of the participants, I refer these people to community based organizations. These are folks who aren’t savvy enough to create a resume, are unfamiliar with computers, or otherwise have literacy issues that they need to address. In-house, we help them with motivational counseling, resume writing, interview techniques, basic computer skills, etc. We also refer them to organizations focused on job placement, vocational training, and education. We count their participation at these organizations as working toward employment. We ask them to keep job search journals that help them track what they are doing and what they are getting from the program engagement.

If they are job-ready, then all they really need to know is where to show up for the interview. We work primarily with the Workforce 1 Career Centers (in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island) which have contacts with a lot of large employers. Usually large companies send representatives to the Workforce 1 Career Center for on-site interview. I don't believe that having a criminal record necessarily stops an offender from getting employed – we educate the offender about their conviction and tell them how to explain that conviction to employers. We tell them how to discuss employer benefits like tax breaks and bonding. We teach the offenders to acknowledge that they did something wrong and express remorse; but they should also move on to being a productive member of society.

Employers want to have a point of contact in case the employee is not working out, so we’re vouching for the probationers. The offenders know that, if they get fired from the job, prison could be in their near future, since one of the conditions to being on probation is that you have to maintain employment. If you don’t do that, you could be violated. If the person is not working, we cannot account for them – we do not know what is happening during the day. You cannot effectively monitor somebody if you do not know where they are. If they are working, then they are contributing to family obligations and are abiding by the conditions of probation.

But prison is not always the immediate response if somebody is not working. We have graduated sanctions. Say somebody is at the six-month mark and does not have employment and has only gone to one interview per month for that time. This is evidence that they are not putting in time to get employed. In that case, the person might get a verbal or written reprimand. If that doesn’t work, then we can have somebody do community service in lieu of employment (where we can at least monitor their activities and note that they are doing some service to society). From there, we could move to electronic monitoring so that we can see who the person is associating with, or do a halfway house or community corrections center. The last resort is prison.

I supervise a team of forensic case managers (who are graduate interns from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice) to track the offenders and follow up with them. We want to know what happened at their meetings, whether they followed instructions and gauge the effectiveness of referred programs. I find that if you don’t follow up, people get lost and slip between the cracks. The case managers communicate with the offenders’ probation officers, who still maintain the other aspects of supervision.

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

Wearing the dual hat – being both the law enforcement person and then the social worker. You are constantly juggling the two. It’s a misconception that many people have that a probation officer’s sole goal is to get someone back in prison. You’re constantly fighting that misconception.
I have cases where the person needs punitive measures because he is not following directives. I also have that individual who genuinely made a mistake and wants to do the right thing. You’re counseling them about how to talk with their spouses, how to re-acclimate to their children – there are a lot of little things that we take for granted, but that returning offenders need help with.

For example, I had guy who couldn’t pay child support because he was not working. The child’s mother was getting on him about it and he felt like a bad father. I said, "Alright. You can still be a good father – what you need to do is be an active presence in your child’s life. Go to the park, check the child’s homework. You can do free things, you don’t have to do extravagant things. When mom sees that you’re playing a role, your relationship with mom and the child will improve." He came back a few weeks later to say that I was right. He said that he realized he had been prevented from seeing his child because he was having problems with the child’s mother. Now, he had started picking the kid up from school, doing homework with him – just generally doing things that he wasn’t doing before. And his relationship with the child’s mother improved. I could have violated the guy because he was not supporting his dependent (which is one of the conditions of probation), but if he goes back to prison, that doesn’t serve anyone. The child doesn’t have a dad and the mother doesn’t have somebody to support her. So you have to play dual role.

I later joked with the offender stating that I need to start taking up a collection for all the advice I give.

What is the most rewarding thing about being a probation officer? What motivates you to do your job everyday?

The gratitude and acknowledgment you get from your peers, from management and, more importantly, from the offenders. I’ve had offenders who have called me after their termination and told me that they got their master’s degree or a bachelor’s degree. They thanked me for encouraging them to do this. It’s seeing somebody who gets reunited with their child and becomes an active participant in that child’s life. Or somebody who starts at an entry-level position and moves up to supervisor in a rewarding job. Being invited to graduations, getting baby pictures in the mail – it all makes you feel like you’ve reached someone.

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

My next goal is to see AIM HIRE become a bigger program. Right now, we’re developing a team of people, not just me, to run the program. Each person could develop a specialty (resumes, interviews, resources, funding) instead of me trying to do everything. I’d also like to see us take on a statistician so that we can develop our data resources. I would also like more recognition, so people can understand what it is that we do and that we need all the resources we can get. Just because we are a federal agency does not mean that we couldn’t use the help of others.

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

Often, we get this rap of just trying to put people in prison. People put themselves in prison. Their actions are what put them back into prison. That’s key. But probation officers do a lot of rehabilitative work – I think it should be an even balance of punitive measures and rehabilitation.