By Brianna Cunningham, Bucknell University (2016)
For the summer of 2015, I had the opportunity to intern with the United States Probation Office of Camden, New Jersey. This office is a vital component of our criminal justice system. The Probation Office oversees offenders who are on supervised provision. In addition, the officers assist the judge in court hearings. They also serve the community. Most offenders are assigned a probation officer once they are on supervised provision. Most of the offenders that came into the Camden Probation Office were from Camden or the surrounding areas. The City of Camden is a neighbor to the City of Philadelphia, my hometown. After interning in Camden for only six weeks, I came to realize the similarities between these two cities.
“I believe that probation officers can assist offenders with educational support, employment opportunities, and mentorship”writes Cunningham (Bucknell ’16).
Like the City of Philadelphia, Camden faces poverty issues of crime and violence. In fact, through history, this city has statistically had and still has record high numbers of murders and drug related crimes. Unfortunately, crime and violence is detrimental to poor citizens including those who live in Camden, NJ. Most of the perpetrators who carry out crimes in cities like Camden and Philadelphia have no way out of the circumstances that they were born into. As a result, they end up making the wrong decisions because they don’t have supportive friends and families, they have addictive habits to drugs and alcohol, and they do not have an education to allow them to get a minimum wage job. I have come to this conclusion because of my own observations and also presentence reports that I read. A presentence report is based on an investigation into the history of a person convicted of a crime. A report that appears to be so simple can determine if their circumstances should ameliorate the sentence or if their history criminal behavior should increase the sentence. Although a probation officer supervises and investigates, their role goes beyond the serving that we expect from other positions in the criminal justice system. Probation officers step out into these communities. They checking on the individuals who they supervise and make sure that they do their best to stay out of trouble. These officers witness the problems that are most prominent in these communities.
My main role was to assist with General Education Development (GED) tutoring. I had three male students of different ages and different levels of education. In my tutoring sessions, I creatively put together different activities and enjoyable ways for my students to learn material in Math, Social Studies, English, and Science. My students had the opportunity to work independently, and they had the opportunity to work in teams. One of the things I found useful was the collaboration with people aware of the intersection between criminal justice and education. The Probation Office had individuals from different age groups. I was not the only GED tutor. My coworker Ashley Brook, a graduate student of criminal justice at Rowan University, decided to collaborate in a GED study session with our students. We led a game of GED jeopardy.
Probation officers stressed the education to the offenders as one of the most powerful things that they could acquire. This was especially important since most people coming out of jail did not have their GED. I stressed to my students that learning on a daily basis could change their lives. I learned that there is much more to probation work than monitoring and disciplining offenders. The connection that probation officers have with these offenders is professional but also personal. I was not just a tutor; I was also a role model for my students. I saw myself as someone they could speak with on a daily basis. I knew that my actions such reading the daily newspaper would motivate them to want to read more, even if they were not fully aware of what was happening. We even engaged in conversation about their thoughts on the criminal justice system and how it affected them. I believe that probation officers can assist offenders with educational support, employment opportunities, and mentorship.
Secondly, I had the opportunity to contribute as a member of the ReNew Camden program. I was a note-taker at the meetings. ReNew Camden is a 52-week program, which aims to assist offenders who have long criminal histories with reentry. The participants are high-risk reoffenders and have a criminal history score between five and eight on the Risk Predictor Index administered by the Probation Office. Within this 52-week period a team of selected judges, defense attorneys, probation officers, staff and faculty from Rutgers’s Law Clinic and School of Social Work, and interns (including me) met every two weeks to discuss the participants. With the ReNew Camden program being relatively new, I recognized a number of strengths and weaknesses. First, it helpfully brought together key personnel such as judges, attorneys and social workers. These individuals, drawing on different experiences and educational backgrounds, each bring something new to the table. Second, daily meetings allowed applicants to always be prepared for almost anything. In these ways ReNew Camden truly made a difference in the offender’s lives, decreasing recidivism. There were other things that did not work. It could be a little over whelming with so many people at one meeting, even though sharing diverse viewpoints was valuable. Another weakness was the attitude of some probation officers about the situation of some offenders. While situations involving crime have negative aspects, a pessimistic attitude can be detrimental to the parolees and the group. Looking back, I wish I had spoken up more about these matters. Even though I learned a great deal from the intern experience, I did not always speak up enough. Silence can sometimes be powerful but it can also be detrimental. Most importantly, in order to fix problems like poverty, engaging in the discussion is required.
Although this reentry program is relatively new to Camden, reentry programs have shown up throughout out the United States. In order to enhance my learning about reentry, my supervisor, Valencia K. Sherrer, a Supervising U.S Probation Officer, invited me and other interns to attend the Reentry Symposium at Fairton Prison in New Jersey. At this symposium, we learned that reentry programs, like ReNew Camden, reward offenders who complete the program by removing a year or two from their supervision time.
I also had the opportunity to observe and review a number of criminal cases and hearings. The first hearing I witnessed was a bail hearing for a young woman. I also sat in on a mortgage fraud case. The most exciting case that I observed was a racketeering conspiracy for the son of imprisoned mob boss, ‘Little Nicky’ Scarfo. He was convicted after a very long trial. Taking notes on interactions and demeanors at these trials and hearings, and in the office, enabled me to become aware of the strengths and weakness of the probation office and the criminal justice system, to understand what is effective and ineffective. Many of the probation officers are passionate about their work, and I learned from those passionate individuals. I asked them questions about how they worked to improve themselves and the offenders. One probation officer stressed good communication. The way she communicated with offenders made a difference in their actions, even when she was not present. She also emphasized being organized and knowledgeable about each case and reviewing the sentencing book. In addition to these positive learning models, I also noticed staff becoming frustrated and judgmental about the actions of their clients. These attitudes could undermine passion they had for the job. I became aware of the actions and feelings that I would not adopt working in the public sector addressing vital issues such as poverty and crime. While everyone sought to make a difference, the probation officers did not always come together as a team, in part because work is demanding, busy, and intense. Time to reflect as a team is crucial for probation work because the criminal justice system can have an enormous impact in overcoming poverty. Open discussion about for programs like reentry allows the community to see that the criminal justice system can improve it.
My internship offered opportunities to do different things every day in order to gain this overall view of criminal justice. My supervisor stressed the importance of making the most out of my internship by controlling the tasks that I executed in the office. I also had independence to do things like participate in attorney training to acquire knowledge about uploading particular documents for particular cases. I learned that basic competence in effective office work advances criminal justice and diminishes poverty.
As mentioned previously, Camden is much like my hometown of Philadelphia. Despite their assets, Camden and Philadelphia are burdened by crime and poverty. The multiple interlocking dimensions of poverty—unequal and poor of healthcare, education, and weak labor markets—must be addressed while administering criminal justice. Poverty studies at my university, Bucknell, enables me to understand these multiple dimensions, and my internship at the U.S. Probation Office in Camden, enabled me to see that criminal justice must incorporate education, reentry opportunities, competent and office practices, and encouraging relationships with offenders. These offenders can, with help, overcome the confines of poverty while the system protects the community.
I am not sure what my future holds, but I will be driven by a multi-dimensional approach to freeing young men and women, like those with whom I worked in Camden, from the trap of poverty.