TWIN FALLS — How do you stop a person who has committed a crime from doing the same thing again?
It could be as simple as talking with them.
Local probation and parole officers have shifted their focus in recent years from the traditionally reactive approach taken by officers to a more proactive, personal approach that’s heavy on conversations and self-reflection.
“For the most part, the history of community corrections supervision... has been around a surveillance model. You watch somebody until they screw up, and then you respond to that,” said Dawn Anderson, district manager for District 5, which includes Blaine, Camas, Cassia, Gooding, Jerome, Lincoln, Minidoka and Twin Falls counties.
“You know, it seems simple to tell somebody what they need to do, so that they don’t find themselves in the situation of breaking the law,” Anderson said. “But what happens when we’re not there to tell them what to do anymore?”
The new focus on intrinsic motivation through conversation is part of a broader statewide effort by the Department of Correction to change the culture in probation and parole offices.
“We trained our P.O.s for years to be referees, always throwing out the red flag,” IDOC director Henry Atencio told the state legislature’s Criminal Justice Reinvestment Oversight Committee last month. “Today, we’re training our P.O.s to be life coaches.”
Atencio compared the strategy to parenting: “The more praise you’re giving, and positive direction, the better outcome you’re going to get.”
The shift in District 5 is largely rooted in a growing emphasis on motivational interviewing (MI), a communications method that focuses on building intrinsic motivation through self-reflection, rather than external pressures.
Motivational interviewing first began attracting attention for its effectiveness in alcohol counseling situations in the 1980s, and has since become common in the criminal justice system.
Lead probation and parole officer Gayle Johnson describes it as a “more conversational” style of interacting with clients that’s geared toward changing long-term behavior, rather than responding to infractions.
Changing long-term behavior isn’t a new goal for probation and parole officers by any means. Nor is the concept behind motivation interviewing — bringing about that change in behavior through intrinsic motivation, rather than external pressures — a new goal for District 5.
But the 2014 Justice Reinvestment Act, passed with the intent of reducing recidivism in the state, provided the district with additional funding to focus on training efforts. Before that, officers were given some basic MI instruction at the start of their careers; today, that training process is continual and personalized for each officer.
As an MI instructor, Johnson trains her fellow officers in the method and helps them evaluate ways they can improve. She is the only instructor in District 5 at the moment, but that is expected to change soon: three more people are going through instructor training.
It can be difficult at times to convince her fellow officers that the method is appropriate for a probation or parole setting.
“There are some probation officers that feel like, ‘I wasn’t hired on to be a counselor, I don’t have counseling skills, I wasn’t trained,’” Johnson said. “So I think sometimes there’s maybe a block in how this fits into their role.”
Another challenge: finding the time to sit down and have a lengthy conversation with every probationer and parolee. There are 28 officers in District 5; there were 1,687 offenders in the district at the end of January.
“Conversations take more than five minutes,” Anderson said. “If somebody is trying to spend quality time with somebody going through that process, having 50 offenders on your caseload and they all need some of your time, it really doesn’t work very well.”
Anderson, echoing a common lament across Idaho, says she would like to see her district’s officers have their caseloads reduced. The Department of Correction has requested 12 additional officers throughout the state for FY 2019.
It’s difficult to measure how effective the recent emphasis on motivational interviewing has been, as the state’s prison population continues to grow. Idaho’s recidivism rate sits at 32 percent today; in 2013, prior to the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, that rate was 35 percent.
“You don’t move those numbers overnight,” Anderson said. “We hope that another three years down the road, our recidivism rate drops a few percentage points.”