STAND UP

Bruce Gibson, Director of Probation for Clermont County, Ohio, Courthouse
Part I

 

 

 

by Brad Gibson
June 2009


What in your experience and in your background led to your position as Director of Probation for Clermont County?

It started in the early 1970’s in juvenile probation work in Stark County, Ohio – which is Canton, Ohio – and I worked as a juvenile probation officer for four years and at that time I was able to learn the juvenile court system and worked very closely with a couple of what I thought were pretty progressive individuals who taught me about just general probation work and working with families, working with school systems, and obviously working with kids that are on probation. Then I left that position and became the director of pre-trial release program which was a new, then-called the LEAA program. That program was designed from an institute in New York City which was established to release people, whose cases were pending bond, from jails and to base such cases on individuals acknowledging their own recognizance whenever possible. For individuals acknowledging their own recognizance, it meant that they didn’t have to pay money to be released from jail. This provided people with no funding source or very little income to be released from jail prior to their trial date, and it basically made the system fairer.

It does sound very progressive for that time period.

Previously, the idea was that, if you had money, you got out of jail, and if you didn’t have money then you stayed in jail. What the pre-trial release program did, and I was the first director of that program, was set up a process of interviewing inmates talking about their backgrounds and their stability in the community. Based on this activity, we would meet with the judges and determine their ability to be released on their own recognizance.

You soon transitioned to Ohio?

I left that program to go to Columbus, Ohio where I worked as a pre-trial officer and also a dispute resolution mediator counselor and hearing officer. I did that for three or four years while I was working on my master’s degree at Xavier University. I got my degree in Corrections. From there I took a position as assistant professor at Thomas More College [Kentucky] in the sociology-social work and criminal justice program. I also worked at that time with the Dispute Resolution Center as a mediation hearing officer for northern Kentucky, including Campbell County and Boone County resolution hearing offices. Through that program we were involved in not only releasing people from jail but also trying to dissolve complaints through dispute resolution.

So, innovative things were happening.

Sure. The dispute resolution process was what I thought was one of the more cutting-edge edge movements at that time in the late 70’s early 80’s. At that time the goal was to allow people to resolve minor disputes and crimes without anyone being incarcerated, arrested or going to court and resolve those issues without any formal complaints or actions being taken. Those programs continue to exist today, and I think they are going to have to be more important as we continue to go into this budget crisis, which I will discuss more later.

You were also teaching and leading a probation department?

From the pre-trial office and assistant professor at Thomas More College and mediation hearing, I became the Division Manager of Probation in Montgomery County, which is Dayton, Ohio. I joined what was probably one of the more progressive and more advanced probation departments in the country and certainly in Ohio. We were the only department to be accredited through the American correction association. We had high standards that we met. I served two roles as the division manager of the special services projects. This included our intensive supervision program, which was one of those notions that began in the early eighties designed to reduce the prison population for lower end felony offenders – ones that are not as serious or violent. It was certainly a program for keeping the prison population from being overcrowded. We actually modeled it after a program in New Jersey, and we actually called it an intensive treatment program because the goal was to have offenders in that program who, if it weren’t for the program, would otherwise be in prison. But, they had the potential and the stability to be productive members of society and not be incarcerated, even though they had a history of prior criminal offenses or committed something that warranted felony status.

This was especially groundbreaking?

We actually set the model for Ohio in that most intensive programs were intensive supervision – meaning, they had electronic monitoring, house surveillance contacts, curfews. They set a lot of conditions for people that were monitoring and supervision; whereas, the intensive treatment program was more about rehabilitation and changing behavior and getting these offenders employed in order to hopefully reduce their chances of committing a crime again. After that, I was offered the position of Director of Probation Services in Clermont County (Ohio).

These seem like logical career moves.

There’s one other thing I want to say about the division management position. I was also the Accreditation Manager for that department and headed all of their special services. We began doing a lot of evaluation and research of our department which was pretty progressive for that time. I think it was very helpful for my career, because it gave us a chance to analyze not only what we were doing, but how well we were doing it. We could see if it was meaningful and what the results were. We began to look at outcomes. That was part of my position: to perform all those functions as research analysis for our department. So, now, I’m currently the Director of Probation Services in Clermont County.

It has been an interesting position because, when I came here, we had a very small staff. We had five probation officers, two support staff, and now we have 24 people in total. Twenty are probation staff and the rest are support staff. We have created a lot of specialties and we’ve had a lot of different sentencing options for the court that we didn’t have before. Its changed the way we do business in probation in Clermont county.

Now that you are the Director of Probation in Clermont County, What is a normal day for you like?

A normal day for me is interesting because I have so many different responsibilities. Obviously, I’m responsible for all of the activities in our department, which applies to the old saying, “The buck stops with me.” But, I have an assistant director who really handles my day to day operations because I have so many other things I am involved with on a state wide level and county wide level. A normal day consists of attending one or two – maybe three – meetings a day with networking agencies, all the agencies in our county - meeting with judges, attorneys, prosecuting offices, any one that’s doing any kind of programs with our department. Then I spend a fair amount of time resolving cases with my judges and my staff. Usually, when someone presents me with a case, it is usually at a standstill, and they need to figure out what to do next. So, my job then becomes resolving disputes and cases. At that point, I may meet with the judges and resolve how to handle the case, or I may make some decisions about some other alternatives. Most of these cases involve someone who is currently on probation and has had some difficulty violating some of the terms of their probation. Many times we get calls from victims, family members – sometimes employers – anyone who has something to do with the offenders on probation. My job then is to make sure that the course of action we take is in line with the mission and objectives of the department.

Some of the other things I do is approve all the reports that go to court, particularly with respect to people who violate probation. That’s a very serious issue. It’s probably one of the most difficult decisions some of our officers make. Those are decisions that involve taking someone’s liberties and freedoms from them. It can be for ten, fifteen, or twenty years, or on the other hand, it could mean putting some family member, victim or community member at bay, and we certainly need to protect the community.  So, those decisions and approvals are pretty serious. I certainly try to help the probation officers because they realize the intensity of those decisions and the impact they have on other people and parts of our community.

It seems there are constant activity and decision-making needs at every turn, every day.

Some of other things are dealing with personnel issues. When you have 24 members of your staff, there is always someone with some issue – anything from personal matters to things that are of a professional level, to people getting sick and people breaching our moral standard. I resolve any grievances filed either by victims or by the community. I take all those calls and meet with people and set up some kind of process for them.

My position has changed through the years because it used to be day-to-day operations, and now I’m positioned more in a global perspective. Now, I spend most of my time developing and establishing new techniques for us to perform our duties. Much time and effort are spent on consulting with others throughout the state and country on new innovative things and on new tactics. On one hand, it’s a small department where I can be involved on day to day operations and occurrences. On the other hand, we are big enough that we can move in a direction to be more effective in completing our duties.

Are there often any tasks that you find unexpected or urgent that you need to address?

Unexpected things do occur because we aren’t dealing with widgets. We are dealing with people, and people have all kinds of issues. We have 1,600 people actively on probation and, with that many people, you are always going to have some case come up: some family member, victim, or member of the community that wants some action taken toward a person. When people call they are usually in some type of panic. It’s traumatic. They are involved in a situation that needs immediate attention. They want to talk to the director right away. I feel that we are a community-friendly department, and when people talk we need to respond. Some people, daily, just need attention. On any given day I can have two or three things that totally set off my time schedule. It’s funny. I plan my day and I have a calendar of the things I want to do that day, but rarely does a day go by when something happens to upset that course because it is unexpected.

The urgent matters are usually calls from people who are in trouble and on probation, and now they are doing something again that is dangerous to themselves or to others. We have people who attempt to commit suicide. If I or one of my officers gets a call, we have to know how to respond to the call immediately. When we get a call that someone has weapons in his or her home and is threatening to hurt himself, herself, or others, we have to respond. We respond by going to someone’s home or work place, and we may need to make an arrest. We take appropriate action. 

So, when you first entered probation work what was it like in terms of the system and overall operation?

First of all, certainly since the 1970’s, it’s really been on a roller coaster ride. That’s been true in all forms of corrections – probation, prisons, jails, parole, halfway houses – and that means we seemingly were more concerned with the ability to rehabilitate. That was the word back then. The medical model was certainly in practice. We had a system where we realized that the prisons were overcrowded, and we were concerned that there wasn’t a lot that could be done with just warehousing people. It was about the time when officials started saying, “What are the other options?” Behavioral models came out where people received tokens in the jails and halfway houses if they had good behavior – all kinds of different experimental procedures. In probation, I was probably in what I call the “new generation” at that time. I came out of school and went through a period when schools were into the hippie and anti-war [Vietnam] movements. I was appointed to work with all the drug-related cases and with kids experiencing alcohol problems. I actually worked with some of the drug counseling programs that were basically just case management services.

Did you witness a whole different world taking shape before your eyes?

Yes. I tried to bring the kids together and tried to get them to realize what they were getting into and make things work better for them. But, that was pretty much a new attempt because before then, a kid would break a law or get involved in drugs, and police would just arrest them and put them in jail or a detention center. There wasn’t a lot of intervention. We really started the whole idea of at least the education of intervention importance and some case management. I was one of the first ones to do what officials called “Management by Objective” or M.B.O. I didn’t really work by a clock. I would go in and meet with my supervisor every four months, and we would design my goals and objectives for the next four months. That would mean I would see kids on probation in my office or in their homes or schools. I would talk to their parents, vice principals, or drug counselors. I would get calls at two or three in the morning where kids would run away, or else they were in a place they shouldn’t be. I’d have to go get them. Then, the next day I wouldn’t go in until noon. It was just whatever I felt needed my involvement. It was an interesting approach and it had its pros and cons. But, like I said, it was a roller coaster approach. Here we were trying to rehabilitate and see if what we were doing had any impact other than just the traditional incarceration or detention approach.

Then in the 80’s, we saw some of the gang wars, the drugs come in heavy – crack cocaine, guns. There was a lot more violence. The whole sentiment of the country was “nothing works” – all the treatment. Robert Martinson, a professor out of New York University said, “Nothing works.” So, we had better build more prisons. And that did occur. Ohio built, I think, thirteen prisons in a six or seven-year period. The answer was, “Let’s just incarcerate them.”

Every decade seemed to present some major shift in crime dynamics. It seems as if it was a keeping-up-with-the-pace sort of challenge.

In the 90’s, late 80’s, we learned that incarceration was expensive. About 60% of people leaving prison were coming back within a couple of years. So, the prisons weren’t the answer. We got on another roller coaster ride and went back down the hill. We were looking at the issue of how we change one’s behavior? How do we get these people to stop their criminal thinking by doing something other than incarcerating them. So, the roller coaster ride was, “Let’s get more treatment programs. Let’s create a mix of some treatment, with maybe more intensive supervision and more intervention.” Then some sources came and said, “Here’s more funding.” We tried to be more progressive and up front – more proactive. We put more money into working with families so that there was more involvement than just speaking with this individual. We made it more of an environmental approach.

Things did change a little for the better?

In the mid 90’s there was certainly a reduction of crime and we still see a reduction. That was due to the nature of the truth in sentencing laws across the nation and the prisons being another answer. But, it also had to do with some of the intervention techniques and what we call “best practices” and the idea of having the “what-does-work” philosophy. It came out of a group out of Canada. Some of the University of Cincinnati researchers said, “There are things that do work.” And they have been able to find some of these evidence-based practices. Agencies began following them. That’s pretty much where we are today.

But, so many new prisons are being built.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, the prisons are still growing in numbers, even though we are putting more time and energy into these evidence based practices. But, I think you’ll see in the next couple of years with the budget cuts and strain on our economy, you are going to see more efforts to reduce the prison population and that means people are going to have to find ways to deal with that population in ways other than incarceration. You’ll see the roller coaster go back up again saying, “What else can we do? What we’ve done doesn’t work. We’re seeing fewer crimes but more incarceration. Something is not making sense.” We are seeing people with lower level crimes, like drug crimes, that are filling prisons. Those are individuals who can be treated in the community in a different fashion. I think we will see, in two to three years, an interesting time with corrections, and especially where we put our money and efforts.

How has the dynamic of being a probation officer changed?

I think the biggest change has been more technology. We have global tracking now where we track sex offenders with bracelets within a couple hundred yards – where they are at any given time. We track individuals who are driving automobiles when they are intoxicated. We have more technology that gives us the ability to monitor people better. We also have technology that helps us catch people better. The other part of it is that we also have more legal entities. We have more victim’s rights. More concern for interest groups wanting more laws that create more restrictions for offenders. Establishing more punishment and penalties, higher punishment and higher penalties – more intense penalties for offenders. All of these issues have had some impact on how probation has changed. There are more legal restraints and requirements in what we can do.

How do you handle all this complexity?  It seems overwhelming.

Now, we have a better understanding of what does work. So if we are going to reduce recidivism, which means we can actually protect the public better – if we reduce recidivism and deter people from re-committing crimes, at least to a better percentage, I think you’ll see that probation has come a long way in terms of how we treat people, not only legally, in terms of intervention, and morally, but also in terms of what we think is going to help keep them honest. I can think of an example of drug testing. When I first started in the business, we didn’t have drug testing. It was pretty rare to drug test somebody, and even then it was mostly for heroin addicts. You had to take them to the clinic and it cost sixty dollars. Now I can drug test people for heroin in my office for about sixty cents and tell them the results immediately. That kind of technology and intervention has dramatically changed in probation work.

I think the concern is always going to be protecting the public. Even though we are trying to get people to perform better, and we have people who help them find jobs and get through school, we have ways of increasing their ability to get with their family and establish residency. We do a lot of things for them and help to assist them. But, at the same time, we are always trying to accomplish the goal of protecting the public so that is where the technology comes in.

Read Part II

 

Bruce Gibson

Bruce Gibson

 

 

Brad Gibson

Bruce Gibson's son and RED! contributing writer, Brad Gibson.