Finding Balance in Supervision
April 5, 2022 | Simone Sawyer
I’ve always believed that the purpose of the justice system is to protect, serve, and deliver justice for all. As a community member, I have felt the benefit of police protection, but—as a Black woman and a former public servant—I have seen the other side that’s not so pretty. It’s almost as if the moment someone commits a crime or is convicted of one, they lose their humanity. The justice system switches from protecting and serving to watching, with the intent to punish any slip-up. Historically, this type of “justice” has not been delivered equally across the board. Of course, there are agencies that provide services to people who’ve been convicted, but there is an imbalance between the amount of services provided and the emphasis on surveillance.
My manager and I recently represented Evident Change at a probation conference. We were one of only a few organizations there with no ties to electronic monitoring (EM). I understand the importance of EM systems and monitoring potentially dangerous situations, but I don’t understand why there is so much emphasis on them. Once someone violates their probation or engages in substance use, then what? Is this surveillance in place to provide support once a pattern or issue is uncovered, or is it just a tool used to justify locking someone up again? Surveillance and punishment for wrongdoing without services and support don’t help break the cycle of the behavior. If anything, they feed the cycle.
Actions tend to be tied to a person’s environment or are a symptom of a deeper issue. For example, people don’t typically rob, kill, or assault others without prior related experiences and/or traumas. All behavior is communicative and unique to the individual. Two people could commit the same offense and have different motivations or underlying needs: One person may need mental health services, while the other may simply need basic resources to survive.
That is why one-size-fits-all approaches don’t work. Agencies and courts spend time and resources doing discovery work and assessing people for risks and needs, but how often is the outcome used to inform supervision standards and support? To what extent is probation working to help people transition back into law-abiding citizens versus watching and holding people’s freedom just long enough for them to mess up again?
If our goal as justice professionals is to protect, serve, and deliver justice for all, we need to refocus our efforts and remember this applies not only to the community, but also to those who have broken the law. I once heard a woman explain how she learned to give more grace to those in the justice system because they are serving the time that she could have been serving. This statement blew my mind because it put things into perspective—we have all broken the law at some point and are super thankful that we didn’t get caught. Imagine if you had been caught: How would you want to be treated by the system?