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Community Corrections Reflections: A Look at the Past, Present and Future of the Field
By Meghan Mandeville, News Research Reporter
Published: 02/21/2005

When Ron Goethals retired from his position as Director of the Dallas County, Texas, Community Supervision and Corrections Department in January, he knew that his days of rest, relaxation and golf would be few and far between, at least for a while.  Goethals' schedule remains pretty packed as his experience and success in the community corrections field has earned him invitations to several professional engagements, including this year's American Probation and Parole Association's Winter Training Institute.

As the featured speaker of the conference's opening session, which took place at the Hyatt Regency in Anaheim, California, on February 13, 2005, Goethals stood before his probation and parole peers and reflected on the lessons he has learned during the course of a nearly 30-year career.

After being introduced by APPA President Drew Malloy as "a living testament to the fact that a good guy can finish first and have an impact on the [community corrections] profession," Goethals talked to attendees about some trends he has noticed in community corrections, involving things, people and ideas.

A Snapshot of Trends

As far as "things" are concerned, the trend in the field is towards technology, like drug testing devices, satellite tracking and kiosks, Goethals said.  As in most industries, the goal is to utilize these innovations to reduce the amount human labor that is necessary to produce quality work, he said, noting that human labor is the most expensive operational cost.

But, even if officers are armed with new technologies and less human labor is required to supervise offenders, community corrections is still a people business.  Goethals cautioned attendees that the community corrections workforce is quickly shrinking as employees from the baby boomer generation retire.

"As baby boomers leave the workforce, there is not going to be a significant number of workers to replace them," Goethals warned. 

Making matters worse, Goethals said, the employees who are entering the field have different skills than their predecessors, leaving community corrections agencies with a pool of employment applicants who lack the skills they need to succeed on the job.

Additionally, the offender population is growing as the workforce is decreasing, Goethals said.  To contend with this, as well as the challenges posed by the next generation of community corrections professionals, Goethals suggested that agencies beef up their in-house training to better prepare new employees for the task at hand, ask current staff to work longer hours or offer incentives to retirees to stay in the workforce longer.

While Goethals talked about community corrections trends involving things and people with ease, he noted that discussing trends of ideas in community corrections is a trickier task.

He based his philosophy on Minnesota Judge Dennis A. Challeen's concept of a NORP or a normal ordinary responsible person. 

According to Goethals, NORPs are average people.  He said, for them, the low-level sanctions of the criminal justice system work and effectively change their behavior. 

"Those people self-correct," he said.

It is the non-NORPs, who are less impacted by the sanctions of the criminal justice system and keep returning to it, he said.  

The problem lies in the system's design, he said.  It has been created, for the most part, by responsible citizens, or NORPs, who assume that everyone thinks like they do.

"Our bargaining chips are all NORP bargaining chips," Goethals said. 

According to Goethals, in order for the justice system to become truly effective in dealing with the majority of its clients, who are not NORPs, it needs some tweaking.  But the good news is that people in the field are starting to realize it, he said. 

A Look Ahead

"Some people who are recognizing it are asking more important questions, [like] is there anything that we're doing that is working?" Goethals said.

And this focus on "what works" in community corrections to truly connect with offenders and change their behaviors, which is closely tied to evidence-based practices, is the direction in which Goethals believes the field needs to head.

 "I can tell you this is the most important thing that has happened in my career," Goehtals said about the push towards evidence-based practices.  "I'm excited."

But even during this time of promising change, Geothals cautioned practitioners never to hold on too tightly to concepts or programs because there is always room for additional knowledge or improvement.

"There will be new evidence that might help us refine what we are doing," Goethals said.
 "Be cautious about embracing programs because everything will change [and] we'll be stuck in our own stupidity." 



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