The work of parole and probation officers goes largely unseen in life and in crime entertainment. An Idaho PO explains why we should pay closer attention.
In my last piece, I discussed how crime entertainment ignores the role of social work in the criminal justice system. For this article, I spoke with Steve, a felony probation and parole officer in Idaho and a personal friend. (Because of workplace regulations, we’re using a pseudonym for him.)
He offers a few insights into Hollywood’s portrayal of probation and parole officers, how probation and parole differ, and what goes into the day-to-day work of these officers. To my mind, he also makes important points about the economic effects of imprisonment. Figures within the last decade put the number of American adults who are currently imprisoned or serving sentences on parole or probation at over 7 million—around one in every 31 adults, costing $47 billion in 2008 alone.
The economic effects of imprisonment and a growing push for reform in the corrections system are issues that have recently found their way into the public discourse, on both sides of the American political divide. Soon enough, Hollywood will likely find ways to integrate these questions into crime entertainment—and portrayals of the probation and parole system are ideal channels for exploring those issues.
At their core, the most compelling stories are people-driven, and the “style of community correction” that Steve talks about mirrors this idea. Of course, crime TV is all about high drama and often employs extreme or exaggerated takes on police work. But although a show entirely devoted to POs probably wouldn’t make for the most enthralling TV, it’s odd that they’re entirely missing from the plots of crime shows.
Probation and Parole Officers’ Role in Criminal Justice
ZACHARY EVANS: So, what exactly is your job?
STEVE: My job is to be the enforcement element of the court (probation) and parole commission (parole). When someone is convicted of a felony, the judge gives them a sentence. A certain portion is fixed, while the rest is indeterminate. If someone gets 2+3, that 2 years is normally in prison followed by 3 years of parole. If they don’t go to prison at all, such as the case often is with lesser crimes, they get probation, with prison always being an option.
Put simply, I supervise people who are serving their time in the community, rather than in prison.
Supervision has two different elements: case planning or counseling, and law enforcement. Recently there’s been a strong emphasis on the former. Idaho is realizing that it doesn’t work, economically or otherwise, to keep sending people back to prison. As a result, we’re emphasizing a style of community correction that employs motivation, encouragement, and a realistic idea of what success looks like for a felony offender.
Hollywood’s Portrayal of Parole Officers
ZACHARY: As a fan of film and TV, what is one thing you would say entertainment gets wrong about your job?
STEVE: Nothing really comes to mind. I would say that TV and films don’t really address probation and parole very much, especially compared to cops and even prison guards. Part of this is because the position of PO is much more amorphous than other uniformed law enforcement. Sometimes POs wear a suit and tie, others look just like cops. I wear a polo and cargo pants.
ZACHARY: I can think of plenty of examples of characters who are on parole, but their PO are just these unseen forces or the punchline of a joke. I mean, there’s Danny Ocean in the Ocean’s Eleven franchise. He’s out on parole in that film and is in and out of jail throughout. How big of a deal would that be? Where is his parole officer during all of this?
STEVE: Thanks for bringing up the Ocean’s example, because now I remember him calling his PO and saying, “I’d never dream of leaving the state.” And it cuts to Las Vegas or LA. It’s played for a laugh, but in real life, leaving the state without permission would probably be the worst thing short of a new felony. And you couldn’t pull off simply talking on the phone. There’s front-loaded supervision, where as soon as you get out, you see a PO like twice a week.
ZACHARY: What do you think about Double Jeopardy? Tommy Lee Jones plays a PO in that example of a sound, accurate legal drama. (To fully understand the sarcasm in that last line, read how a lawyer feels about the plot of this film).
STEVE: (Laughing) Oh man, I saw that movie on TNT, on like, a Saturday afternoon in college, so I really don’t remember much. But I remember how ridiculous it was.
ZACHARY: Don’t most POs travel across the country to track down one parolee, before eventually helping that parolee murder their ex-husband, promising to get them pardoned for it?
STEVE: It is truly a hilarious misrepresentation of a PO. It just doesn’t make much narrative sense. We’re not force- and enforcement-oriented like cops or prison guards. Really, we sit in an office most of the time. It’d be sort of like if a drug and alcohol counselor did something like that.
Integrating POs into Crime Entertainment
ZACHARY: If you were a writer or show runner for an episodic crime show like Law & Order, how would you integrate POs into the show?
STEVE: Well, since Law & Order is about cops, I’ll talk about our interaction with police. We frequently go out with police and have satellite offices in PDs. When we’re serving a high risk warrant, we’ll bring law enforcement along with us.
Not surprisingly they often interact with our clients, so when they find out that the individual is on supervision, they’ll call us out to help with a search, since their Fourth Amendment rights are waived when we’re searching them. All of those could be scenarios on a cop show.
I think a PO would play a similar role as medical examiners and CSI guys on Law & Order: definitely a part of the team, but on the periphery. A show about POs would be pretty boring (laughing). There’s a shit-ton of paperwork and a lot of interviewing and some field work, but usually not a whole lot happens.
ZACHARY: Could you share any personal stories that felt “cinematic,” whether because of suspense, danger, or the way events happened?
STEVE: Where things can get dicey around here is in rural places in Idaho, doing residence verification and compliance checks. People out there are almost, to a person, anti-social, libertarian types who love guns and freedom and hate any authority—especially police. So when you go out, it’s not usually the person you’re checking on that you have to worry about, but everybody else.
The most intense situation I got into was something like this: We were going up to see an offender in the middle of fucking nowhere near Idaho City (a town of about 500 people, 36 miles northeast of Boise in heavily forested mountains), but off the highway and then a 20-minute drive. We were down in this small ravine, where four houses were all within shouting distance, and if you were on the road you were in a terrible position. It was the middle of January, so it was icy and cold as hell. It was around 9pm and pitch-dark. It was creepy.
All of us are in full "oh shit" mode at this point. I start walking towards the darkness with my hand on my holstered weapon.
Two other officers and I get out of the car and walk towards what we think the house is. As we’re walking, we hear a man shouting to our left from up on his porch down at us, asking if we’re bounty hunters. It’s immediately apparent he’s at least drunk and potentially a mental health risk.
We try talking to him, explain who we are, and give him a business card. He says he’s “owned this land for 15 years” and that he “gets robbed and shot at from thieves and bounty hunters pretending to be cops.” Everything we say gets him more and more aggravated. He’s yelling, and we’re slowly closing the gap, so that we can grapple with him without him swinging on us.
As we’re talking, we hear a door open and slam shut off in the darkness, but have no idea who it is. All of us are in full “oh shit” mode at this point. I start walking towards the darkness with my hand on my holstered weapon.
Fortunately, all of the tension relieves when a bunch of yappy little dogs come running out towards me, and the guy we’re looking for comes out and tells the man that we’re with him. After that he, was more or less friendly and a little apologetic for yelling. We checked the house and got the fuck out of there.
ZACHARY: What don’t people understand about your job?
STEVE: People don’t really know or care about what POs do. One in nine people in Idaho are under some kind of supervision. People are oblivious to that, and it’s sort of ridiculous.
99% of crime drama ends with a guilty verdict, when really, that's the end of the first act.
The public has little knowledge of parole, and seemingly even less interest. As a result, Hollywood hasn’t rendered its existence with any sort of realism, so you end up with examples like Double Jeopardy, which is so wildly off base, and Ocean’s Eleven, pretending it doesn’t exist.
There’s a reason that 99% of crime drama ends with a guilty verdict, when really, that’s the end of the first act. The majority of the criminal justice system is cleaning up the mess depicted in act one, and maybe trying to prevent the same thing from happening again. It’s not as sexy but really, really important.
It’s like criminals are so interesting to people, but only until they are punished. Then people think they just go to prison forever or move to some other country. But they live and work all around us.
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About the author:
Zachary Evans is a freelance web writer and graduate of Boise State University with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. He spends his time writing, reading, playing music, and cheering on The Seattle Mariners.
You can follow him on Twitter: @ZacharyMEvans