Deborah Jones is a Probation Officer at the Henrico County District 32 Probation and Parole Office. She has previously worked in juvenile detention and women’s correctional facilities. Deborah grew up in a criminal justice family; her relatives work for the police, corrections, and social services.
When I tell people that I’m a PO, the typical reaction is, “Oh, you deal with those folks?” Many people don’t understand what we do. I explain that we’re an extension of the courts. When a court orders an individual to return home under supervision instead of serving out their full sentence in a correctional facility, it’s our job to hold those individuals accountable.
There are more people under the supervision of probation and parole officers than there are behind bars. And returning citizens come from all different situations and socioeconomic statuses. Most people assume that all returning citizens are poor and come from one area. But I’ve found that they come from all over. I’ve had business owners, heirs to large estates, veterans who are dealing with PTSD, and many first-time offenders. Do we handle difficult cases? Yes. We supervise sex offenders, gang members, and people who don’t understand that we’re there to help them. Some clients act out because they’ve never received a mental health diagnosis or proper mental health care.
No one wants to be on supervision. A lot of times, when a client comes in, they are mad at the world and want to put all of the blame on the courts and on me. But as long as you give them the right expectations and show them what freedoms they do have, usually they become more comfortable. We help them identify the thoughts, patterns, and behaviors that led them down this path. Instead of placing blame on everyone else, we ask them to make “I” statements: “I chose to go here, I chose to hang out with this group of people.” When they put those things on paper, they can see: These were my actions, and these were the consequences. It changes the way they look at the situation.
It’s important for clients to come up with their own solutions so that they actually buy in. We ask, “What do you want to do to change your future? What are your goals?” And it’s really satisfying to see the light bulb go off when they realize, “I could have made this change a long time ago.”
I aim to get individuals to the lowest levels of supervision that are appropriate, because the evidence shows that the more you place restrictions on individuals who don’t need supervision, the more susceptible they are to criminal activity. Then, I aim to get people off of supervision as soon as possible—ideally within one year. We have to follow what the courts decree. If the court wants to know when an individual tests positive the first time, then we have to report it. But I also tell a judge when I see that a returning citizen is on the right path—that they’re holding down a job, testing clean, and doing everything we’ve asked them to do.
Housing and jobs are the biggest challenges for returning citizens. Convicted felons in Virginia cannot live in public housing; that’s not the policy in every state. And many private apartment buildings prohibit felons from signing leases. Meanwhile, few employers will give a chance to returning citizens trying to prove themselves. If my clients can't get a job, can't get food, can't get shelter, then where does that leave them?
But all it takes is one person to help a returning citizen realize potential. And I have seen so many people turn their lives around. They come back after a year, three years, five years—and they tell me, “Thank you, Ms. Jones. If it wasn’t for you locking me up at that time, I don’t where I would be.” I see former clients at the grocery store, out in the community. When I see them smile, when they proudly announce “That was my PO!” — that’s what I count as success. It’s not about the numbers. It’s about people who turn themselves around.
Much of my job is done not at a desk but out in the community. We’re serving the public—and if we don’t do our jobs, then the public isn’t safe. But we need to ensure that returning citizens are safe, too. They have rights as well. Do we all make mistakes? Yes. Do some people make mistakes that are more severe than others? Yes. But we're all human beings and deserve to be treated like human beings.
I’ve been in this business for 22 years. I’m not in it for the money; we are pretty much the lowest-paid employees in the Department of Corrections. But promotions and money don’t matter to me, as long as I get to do what I love to do.
— interviewed September 8, 2016