Public Safety

Probation Officers Shift Gears to Help Rehabilitate Criminals


You probably remember your parents saying, “Do as you’re told.” It’s also a common sentiment in dealing with people on probation, but that mantra is starting to change.

Statistics show that an approach based on directives is not particularly effective in changing criminal behavior. That’s why all San Diego County probation officers are currently being trained to speak with offenders in a more conversational style and focus the interactions on helping probationers make better decisions.

“Research shows through building a rapport with an offender and helping them change the way they think, an officer can positively influence probationers and reduce the chances they’ll  commit other crimes, ” said Mack Jenkins, San Diego County Chief Probation Officer.

At one recent training session, San Diego County Probation Officer Armando Burke sat across a table and practiced the new skills with an adult offender, who volunteered to help with the training.  Burke asked the offender what his plans were after he was released. The man told Burke he wanted to stay out of trouble for his family’s sake.

Burke acknowledged his answer and started to move on to the next question. Just then, a training mentor leaned in and suggested to Burke that he could try to get the offender to expand on the subject of his family. Burke struggled for a minute trying to think of a way to follow up, and then admitted to the probationer that this questioning style was all new to him.

“We’re so used to doing it one way. I believe it’s going to take some time, but I think it’s going to work great,” said Burke after the interview with the probationer. “It will give us more tools to work with to help them. Once you get them going, they tell you what they want to do and not do, and we can give them information and address their options.”

The evidence-based training program, known as Integrated Behavioral Intervention Strategies, or IBIS, is designed to teach probation officers to motivate offenders to change for the better. The program includes practicing skills with real offenders.

The old way of doing business by suppressing criminal behavior through threat of punishments is not long-lasting, said trainer Igor Koutsenok, director of the University of California, San Diego Center for Criminality and Addiction Research, Training and Application. It only works while officers have control of the offenders’ behaviors during their period of probation

A more effective way to suppress dangerous behavior is to combine behavioral intervention with penalties, or sanctions, said Koutsenok. The training is science-based, simple, and teaches staff how to practice meaningful interventions with offenders.

The program teaches officers how they can elicit ideas from offenders about change. Officers encourage offenders to offer their own understanding of their situation, the behaviors that led them there, and solutions.

As of November, more than half of San Diego County Probation Department officers had completed the training.

“It’s about building a relationship with our probationers,” said Supervising Probation Officer Maritza Rodriguez, who is helping to coordinate the department-wide training.

“The training helps us be a more active listener and shows us how to address probationers’ needs as they arise,” said Deputy Probation Officer Martha Gutierrez.

All those who attend training are assigned a departmental mentor to help guide them through the transition to a new approach. After the training is over, the mentor monitors the officer’s interviews with probationers for a period to help him or her sustain the new skills, said Rodriguez.

“Our mission is to protect the community by trying to reduce recidivism. We have learned that the best way to reduce recidivism is not by mere compliance monitoring, but by achieving behavior change,” Chief Jenkins said.  “The IBIS model gives our officers skills to be more successful at helping an offender change their own behavior.”