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The Ethicality of a Probation Officer
Within any profession there are a set of rules that one must abide by in order to be successful in that profession. This paper will explore the ethicality of a probation officer. It will include a sample job posting that tells the requirements one must possess in order to qualify for a probation officer position. In order to better understand the life of a probation officer an interview with one within the profession was conducted and examples of issues that would violate ethical principles within the profession as well as how the Probation Officer’s Code of Ethics applies to every aspect of the job from the court to the community.
Ethics is one of the major concerns of philosophy, broader than what people usually see as that moral compass between right and wrong. Its origin is from the Greek word 'ethica' referring to moral philosophy. Ethics focuses its questions and structure on answering what is right and good in one's pursuit of the “good life". There are various ethical frameworks that people adapt to suit their beliefs and their lifestyles influenced by their own set of socialization. What is ethical for me is primarily what I have learned in my formative years concurrently and subsequently improved on by my own experience. For instance on questions about how I should live my life, my Christian upbringing gave me that moral code of doing what is right according to the basic commandments of the Old Testament. However, my exposure with various other philosophers and subsequent studies of philosophy coupled with my personal experiences so far in my life has taught me that what Confucius termed as the “The Golden Rule" is far more applicable in just every setting, in every society, whatever the cultural divide. "Do unto others as you want others to do unto you."
Ours is a globalized world, we live in communities that are becoming increasingly diversified in terms of the varied number of ethnicity and races making America a multicultural enclave. Various philosophies, religious orientation and world views now abound. Coupled with my education on history, philosophy, criminology ethics to me has become that guide in navigating a sea of choices in my quest of doing right by what I believe in. While it is more than that, at its most basic it allows me to logically reason out my actions, validate or invalidate it with my core beliefs.
As such, I believe that the American Constitution is worth protecting as it has kept this nation together and nurtured its growth since the time of our forefathers. I believe in the By-laws of our country - it protects society from slipping into unmanageable anarchy. I believe in democracy and personal liberty as much as I believe that law enforcement and the Criminal Justice system are essential to keeping this nation together. True, conflict arises every now and then - ethical dilemmas, areas where laws clash and convictions come to fore urging a huge debate about the path to be taken. That is however the essence of democracy - we get to debate, to choose, have our say as a people and a nation who believe in the equality of all. What is right for others is wrong for some; what is acceptable to me might not necessary be to you. When it comes to this point, I revert to the golden rule as well as a sense of utilitarianism as John Stuart Mill expounded on. A soldier's death in Iraq is always hard to swallow for any parent and family member. How does one justify the loss of a loved one? From this point of view however, a soldier's sacrifice in pursuit of national security and patriotism becomes more profound and heavy with meaning. It is now about the greatest good for the greatest number in the American Nation.
Personal Beliefs and Quoted Law Ethics
I think that there is a dividing line when ethics and morality in terms of professional and personal is concerned. Be that as it may, there is also that section where they unite to inform a man, regardless of what he believes in and what career he practices about what is just, what is right and what should be in terms of common justice. I believe in justice and democracy and the need for moral philosophy and ethics. It is undeniable that practicing ethics is a challenge in a world of increasing dynamism. It is however a must in a world of civilized people. Without it, we are no more than the primates we are said to have emerged from once.
A Question of Professionalism
People argue that to be good at one's job does not require one to be a 'good man'. In a sense this declaration separates moral philosophy from career making career as nothing more than a tool securing finances in the pursuit of a good life. This begs me to question - "Is professional ethics then a necessity?" The answer from my personal point of view is yes, of course. I think that those who see their jobs as a means to an end do their professions disrespect and the people who use their services. Civilization was built on a set of rules, without it anarchy reigns. To say that a pizza-delivery guy does not need ethics is tantamount to saying the pizza delivery guy can do whatever he wants : he can spit on my pizza, arrive an hour later than necessary and charge extra as he does not need a moral compass being that his job is not a respectable profession.
Now, the practice of ethics encompasses more than just the personal - it crosses across social networks to guide people into the right and wrong that is acceptable in reference to the times and the society they are living in. hence, the need for a professional Code of Ethics according to set professions. Dental Associations, Medical Associations, Teachers, Lawyers, Politicians, Actors, just about every profession follow a set rule according to their services, according to what is legal and according to acceptability. “Virtually all professional codes include some provisions restating ordinary morality. Such provisions seem designed to counteract the special temptations or pressures to ignore the moral standards characteristic of their profession’s work"(Bailey, 1995, p.92) There is always a line that when crossed means penalties, otherwise what keeps a particular profession from pursuing innovation and keeping members in line according to the American Constitution?
From a personal point of view at times I feel that at times my personal code of ethics clash with that of the profession I am currently trying to pursue and it leads me to moral dilemmas I solve this though by reverting back to a utilitarianistic approach. “A major proponent of utilitarianism, believed that the morality of an action should be determined by how much it contributes to the good of the majority" (Pollock, 2008, p.36). What choice would lead to the greatest good? As soon as this is answered, the gray area is bridged. Because this paper primary focus is on professional ethics within the criminal justice system I have chosen to highlight the profession of a probation officer. My example includes a sample job description of a probation officer from the Massachusetts Court System website,
http://www.mass.gov/courts/probation/po.html, like one would find if they were applying for an actual position. I feel that this profession can give one a general understanding of some of the ethical issues faced by those in law enforcement.
EXAMPLE: Job Description, including summary of position.
Probation Officer Job Description
Office of the Commissioner of Probation
ABC TRIAL COURT
Job Description and Qualifications
The probation officer, under the direct supervision of the chief probation officer, first assistant chief probation officer, or assistant chief probation officer, investigates thoroughly offender personal history, background and environment; reports findings to the court and is prepared to make appropriate recommendations on dispositions; periodically interviews probationers to determine the effectiveness of probation supervision and areas in which casework counseling are needed; refers probationers to social resources in the community for assistance in rehabilitation; enforces court orders; recommends revoking of probation and/or modification of court orders when necessary.
Performs all assigned duties relating to cases scheduled for appearance in court.
Assists as needed in courtroom procedure during court sessions.
Plans office activities, conferences, and field visits in connection with investigation and supervision functions.
Maintains accurate and up-to-date case records in a neat and legible prescribed form.
Prepares and submits monthly statistical and performance reports on the status of individual caseload.
Makes interagency contacts with department heads, division heads and subordinates on matters
of policy and procedure.
Gathers and evaluates data pertinent to individual cases in connection with both investigation and supervision. Such data may include information about the offender's home, school, church, neighborhood, and about relevant social agencies.
Following court policy has responsibility for monitoring payment orders of the court, e.g., restitution, fines, support orders, etc.
Maintains own workbook listing information and contact with probationers.
Casework and Counseling:
Conducts counseling interviews with assigned cases according to approved counseling techniques in order to determine and clarify probationer problems; suggests constructive methods for addressing such problems; and consults with supervisor when necessary.
Contacts public and private community agencies to secure their aid in attempting to solve probationer's problems. Continuing and ongoing relationships with agencies are expected.
Following a thorough and complete evaluation, refers probationers to community agencies that offer specialized services that are required for a particular individual's needs.
Contacts collateral sources for information to evaluate or verify current information on probationer's adjustment.
Establishes an ongoing relationship with probationers in order to carry out the orders of the court.
Uses special skills and techniques that may be necessary in the performance of his/her duties.
Enforces all orders handed down by the court.
Carefully documents facts and testifies in court with respect to the probationer's activities, behavior and quality of adjustment while under supervision.
Following established legal procedures, brings alleged violations of the probationer to the attention of the court and/or brings a probationer before the court as required.
Determines when circumstances warrant modification of court orders and initiates the necessary action to procure a decision by the court on such modification.
Conducts investigations, prepares appropriate reports focused on the "why" of the individual's behavior, and is prepared to make recommendations based on these investigations.
Represents the Judges, chief probation officer, and other court officials in many phases of meeting the public.
Performs various public relations activities, such as addressing community groups, participating in conferences, panels, etc., of other agencies.
Plays an important part as consultant in the social planning of the community.
As assigned, performs such other duties as may be directed by the Judge or Chief Probation Officer in accordance with the standards of the Probation Service and any specialized needs of the court.
Is subject to assignment by the Chief Justice for Administration and Management among the various Departments and Divisions of the Trial Court.
A minimum of one (1) year full-time experience in human or allied services
NOTE: A graduate degree in the behavioral sciences, education, administration, management, law, or criminal justice may be substituted for the above experience, if the candidate also possesses a bachelor's degree in accordance with the education requirement.
A bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university.
NOTE: The provision contained in the line experience shall not operate to disqualify any person serving as a temporary probation officer at the time of promulgation of this standard, provided he/she is not serving his/her initial ninety-(90)-day temporary appointment and providing further he/she is otherwise qualified. (The Massachusetts Court System Probation Officer Job Description, 2010)
A day in the life of a probation officer would include the following duties and responsibilities listed in the above job description. There would be no typical day, but rather each day is part of the overall probationary process. Each day varies. Some days you may attend court, or have report days. You may write reports, prepare case plans, or conduct field visits and contact probationers at their home, employment, or in jail. For example, a friend of mine, Tamara Jackson, is a probation officer that has worked in the field for over ten years and to get an understanding of what ethical issues a probation officer faces I decided to conduct an interview with Tamara. The following is some of the questions and answers of that interview.
Job Title: Probation Officer
Person Interviewed: Tamara Jackson
Q1: Ms. Jackson, as a probation officer, what do you do?
I manage a caseload of adult felony offenders who are sentenced by the District Court in Caddo Parish and I monitor their compliance with conditions of probation as ordered by the court.
Q2: How old are the offenders that you supervise and what types of offenses did they commit?
I supervise adult offenders from age 17 and up. The offenses they were convicted of were felony offenses, or offenses that would require a sentence of one or more years in prison. Typical offenses would include, but not be limited to: theft, burglary, possession or sale of drugs, assault, domestic violence, and alcohol related offenses.
Q3. What three things do you like most about your job?
I get to work with various types of people from all socio-economic levels. Seeing the working of the court system, working with judges, attorneys. My day-to-day activities are always changing.
Q4. What three things do you like the least about your job?
Paperwork , drug testing, uncooperative clients
Q5. What does a typical day look like for you?
There is not a typical day. Each day varies. Some days I may attend court, or have report days, I may write reports, prepare case plans, or conduct field visits and contact probationers at their home, employment, or in jail.
Q6. What advice would you give to young people who wanted to be a probation officer?
Do not violate the criminal laws of any governmental unit. Criminal convictions are permanent and you cannot be hired as a probation officer with a criminal history. You should be aware of the consequences of your behavior. The consequences of your behavior and the behavior of the people you associate with will follow you. In college - take classes related to criminal justice, psychology, and sociology. If possible serve as an intern in a probation office to see what a probation officer does to determine if that is what you want to do.
Q7. What skills could be learned from being involved in youth court that could assist you as a probation officer?
Learning how the justice system works, why it is important to hold people accountable for their behavior, and the importance of repairing the harm to victims of crime. (T. Jackson, personal communication, October 15, 2010)
Probation Officers: Code of Ethics
To assist probation officers in maintaining the integrity of their profession by upholding and advancing the purpose, knowledge, ethics and values of the probation field at all times. This Code of Ethics will thereby provide a standard of practice to enable all probation officers to fulfill their goals and objectives to the offender, the Courts, the community, and the Criminal Justice System. Probation officers shall encourage ethical conduct by all members of the profession, have a responsibility to colleagues to develop a working relationship of mutual respect and cooperation, promote the philosophy and ethics of the profession with new colleagues. Probation officers also seek advice and utilize the expertise of colleagues and supervisors, contribute their expertise in order to promote the integrity and competence of the profession to the public, keep current with emerging knowledge relevant to the probation field, and shall contribute to the knowledge base of the profession.
Probation Officers shall strive to provide the highest caliber of service to the Courts and Judiciary through the preparation of quality reports, testimony, and investigations. They shall at all times conduct themselves in a manner that upholds the dignity of the Court. As an integral part of the total Criminal Justice System uphold and respect the tenets, rules, and functions of that System. Promote awareness among other members of the Criminal Justice System, of the philosophies, functions, and roles of Probation Officers. Be aware of their role in protecting the community from criminal activity and in the promotion of programs for the prevention of crime.
Probation Officers shall provide service to the offender to the maximum of their professional skill, ability, and competence. They will maintain a professional relationship at all times to avoid conflict of interest, promote equality in every respect thereby preserving the dignity and rights of offenders, and create a positive atmosphere for change that will encourage offenders to realize their goals and potentials by taking advantage of training, treatment and services provided. They also inform the offender of legal rights to and his responsibilities in the Criminal Justice System, make the offender aware of the responsibilities and duties of the probation officer within the Criminal Justice System. Probation officers shall respect the privacy of the offender and the confidentiality of information subject to legal and policy parameters. (Probation Officers Association of Ontario Code of Ethics, 2010)
The ethical principle: "Maintain a professional relationship at all times to avoid conflict of interest"(To the Offender, 2010) would be violated if you began dating your client, which sets up a conflict of interest. You would no longer be in a position to objectively act as the person's probation officer, because of the dual relationship. It also is considered to be serious violation of your professional responsibility and ethical principle: "Create a positive atmosphere for change that will encourage offenders to realize their goals and potentials by taking advantage of training, treatment and services provided"(To the Offender, 2010).
The ethical principle: "Strive to provide the highest caliber of service to the Courts and Judiciary through the preparation of quality reports, testimony and investigations. Probation Officers shall at all times conduct themselves in a manner that upholds the dignity of the Court"(To Courts, 2010) would be violated if you were continually late with reports, handed in poor quality reports and not prepared for either testimony or investigation. This is in conflict with the ethical principle to "Provide service to the offender to the maximum of their professional skill, ability and competence"(To the Offender). These tow ethical values/principles are in conflict because if you were unprepared and late with reports, you would be violating the second principle.
In conclusion, as I said before there is a dividing line when ethics and morality in terms of professional and personal is concerned. Practicing ethics is a challenge in a world of increasing dynamism and this is no different in the profession of probation. “Professionals in criminal justice are called upon to enforce laws and implement policies"(Pollock, 2008, p. 154). They face the ethical dilemma of doing what is right versus what is wrong every day. They have an obligation to their profession to uphold the standards that have been set forth in order properly conduct their job. These standards of conduct can at times clash with one’s own personal beliefs. The idea behind the professional standards is that if carried out properly ethical dilemmas will be kept to a minimum.