clear Surveillance of Probationers

Individuals on probation are responsible for a significant portion of all violent crime. In fact, probationers commit 30 percent of all homicides. Yet, probation agencies traditionally have not collaborated with police departments. This lack of coordination has evolved over the years, reflecting the apparently divergent missions of the two organizations -- the police "lock them up," and probation officers "let them go."1 However, the differences between probation and policing are being addressed as new forms of cooperation are explored. Police and probation officers alike recognize that both groups play important roles in reducing the explosion of violent and firearm-related crime. They see their collaboration as a logical outgrowth of the community policing models influencing today's law enforcement practices. Moreover, probation officers are increasingly at risk of more violence-prone probationers, and they recognize that probationer surveillance can be greatly enhanced by working with police.

Nationally, 60 percent of all offenders under corrections supervision are on probation.2 Offenders placed on probation have conditional rights to remain in the community provided they comply with the terms of probation set by the sentencing judge, such as avoiding additional arrests, reporting to a probation officer, paying restitution, and obtaining substance abuse treatment. Juvenile probationers are often subject to curfews.

Joint surveillance model

In November 1992, Operation Night Light began operations in Boston, MA, as a demonstration of the joint surveillance of probationers. Police and probation officers in the Dorchester area of the city began to leave their desks and approach probationers on the streets, after hours, and on their home turf. District judges were encouraged to impose new probation restrictions on their most violent, gang-involved defendants. In this manner, the police and probation teams could intensify probation supervision and keep the high-risk offenders, who were likely to take any advantage of perceived laxity, on a "short leash."3 Police and probation officers expected that this escalation in the intensity of supervision would lower the number of violations for new arrests as compliance with curfews and other restrictive conditions increased.

Joint probationer surveillance programs generally involve establishing two- or three-person police and probation officer teams to identify active probationers who may not have been complying with court-imposed conditions. During visits with probationers, the police officers take responsibility for safety issues and the probation officers meet with the probationer and family members to reinforce the importance of meeting all court requirements, and to determine if the probationer or family needs other social services that can help the offender successfully complete his or her sentence. The police-probation officer team also meets with groups of juveniles and young adults on the streets to send a message to other probationers that both agencies are cooperating to monitor their activities.

Initial outcomes

Although these joint surveillance programs have not been formally evaluated, the use of these police-probation officer teams in the Dorchester area of Boston, MA, resulted in a 9-percent decline in the number of violations for new arrests as compliance with curfews and other conditions of probation increased during the first 3 years of the program.4 Moreover, with more than 6,000 probationer contacts during the 5-year period from 1992 to 1997, the number of all firearm-related homicides declined more than 50 percent.5 The program administrators in Boston recognize that the reduction of the homicide rate cannot be attributed exclusively to the Operation Night Light program; however, they suggest that probation sentences have gained a new and enhanced credibility due to stricter enforcement of key conditions, and that people on probation must take their requirements seriously or endure the consequences. Probationers came to realize that their actions were known to either probation officers or the police, who were pooling their intelligence. This deterrence strategy made many more probationers amenable to "going straight" than was typical under previous conditions.6

Operation Night Light has served as the model for the other probation surveillance strategies described in this chapter, and for a number of similar programs in other cities.


1. R.P. Corbett, "The promise (and perils) of probation-police partnerships," Corrections Management Quarterly 2(Summer):3, 1998.

2. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Correctional Populations in the United States, 1995, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1997.

3. Corbett, 1998.

4. R.P. Corbett, B.L. Fitzgerald, and J. Jordan, "Operation Night Light: An emerging model for police-probation partnerships," in Invitation to Change: Better Government Competition on Public Safety, Boston, MA: Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, 1996.

5. Corbett, 1998.

6. J. Petersilia, Community Corrections: Probation, Parole, and Intermediate Sanctions, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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