Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Supervising Offenders: The New Shade of Gray?

Guest Blog Written By: Kerri Wagner

Reducing recidivism is tethered to our willingness to apply alternative interventions that target offender thinking and requires inclusive buy-in from all stakeholders. It necessitates us [as supervisory agents] to own a part of the problem and to become a part of the solution.

Strongly influenced by my Wyoming upbringing and my tough-on-crime, High Sheriff father; I held deep-rooted views on crime and punishment. At the age of 21, I followed my father’s example; entering the field of law enforcement, where my unfettered, conservative values abetted a successful career as a police officer. Opting for a career change, I was hired as a parole agent for the South Dakota Department of Corrections (DOC) in 2005.

I can admit that my initial years as a parole agent were difficult. I was too enforcement-minded, too rigid, too black and white, and too uncertain to explore new strategies for managing offenders. I strongly believed that punishment alone would change behavior, which prevented me from learning and applying new skills that might have contributed to better outcomes.

They say that changing others must start by changing yourself.

I am fortunate to work for an agency embodied by visionary leaders who seek to incorporate evidence-based methods of managing offenders within the DOC and who champion an “agent of change” philosophy focused on policy, training and skill building.

As the 24/7 Manager for the Division of Parole, I had a chance-meeting with an influential groundbreaker, whose message was powerful and inspiring to me. I finally grasped the magnitude of the problems we were facing in corrections and realized that we could not sustain the costs of our escalating prison population without changing the way we sentence, treat and supervise drug and alcohol offenders.

It hit home! By focusing solely on the behavior, and not addressing the thinking behind it, I was contributing to the problem. If I was truly going to be an agent of change, I needed to become a part of the solution: to advocate for effective policy reforms that save tax dollars and divert our low-risk, chemically dependent offenders back to the community.

First, I had to get over the disdain I felt when hearing the phrase, “relapse is a part of recovery.” I had to concede that parole revocations for alcohol and drug use, absent the commission of other crimes, merely enforced short-term compliance. This provoked my pursuit to find a sense of balance between enforcing conditions and addressing criminogenic needs in order to promote long-term change.

The South Dakota DOC strives to reduce recidivism by implementing strategic, organizational and adaptive methods, based on evidence and backed by empirical research to improve public safety. Whenever possible, we utilize alternatives-within the community-to address drug and alcohol relapses. DOC agents have discretion to design interventions that best target the needs and risks of offenders. We employ the technologies offered as part of the 24/7 Sobriety Program, (twice daily breath tests, urinalysis, continuous alcohol monitoring, sweat patch drug testing and ignition interlock) to assist our efforts. Offenders are required to pay a significant portion of the costs for these technologies, encouraging a personal and financial investment in their recovery. If relapse occurs, we apply sanctions that are swift, meaningful and certain. We also have embraced cognitive behavioral strategies such as MI (Motivational Interviewing) and EPICS (Effective Practices in Community Supervision), to promote a mind shift among offenders and to stop the cycle of recidivism.

Exploring my own beliefs and being proficient in the use of MI and EPICS was not an overnight transformation. It required constant purposefulness on my part. Sometimes it felt awkward. I stumbled, I got frustrated, and I failed repeatedly. Much like the offenders I work with, I still relapse on occasion; falling back into my old ways of thinking and doing. However, I continue to persevere.

This mind shift has preceded an appreciation for the “gray” in my black and white world. The practice has not diminished my personal values or core beliefs; nor has it made me soft on crime or tolerant of bad behavior. Instead, it has fostered balance in the way I manage and motivate offenders. Being an agent of change is now my purpose, not my plight.

Kerri Wagner

Kerri Wagner is a Parole Agent for the South Dakota Department of Corrections and Divisional Manager for the South Dakota 24/7 Sobriety Program. She is a proponent of using Smart Justice strategies to reform public policy and reduce recidivism. As an EPICS and Motivational Interviewing Specialist, she coaches and trains agents on the use of alternative supervision strategies for offenders with chemical dependency issues. Kerri, a former police officer, is in her 21st year as a law enforcement professional.