Innovation in Community Corrections and Probation Officers’ Fears of Being Sued

AuthorLaurie A. Drapela,Faith E. Lutze
Published date01 November 2009
Date01 November 2009
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary
Criminal Justice
Volume 25 Number 4
November 2009 364-383
© 2009 SAGE Publications
hosted at
Innovation in Community
Corrections and Probation
Officers’ Fears of Being Sued
Implementing Neighborhood-Based
Supervision in Spokane, Washington
Laurie A. Drapela
Washington State University Vancouver, Vancouver, WA
Faith E. Lutze
Washington State University, Pullman, WA
Probation departments are emphasizing a greater level of community interaction
between officers and ordinary citizens as an integral part of effective offender supervi-
sion. This trend is due in part to the prisoner reentry correctional paradigm, which
conceptualizes probation officers as relationship brokers between offenders and their
employers, family members, and community stakeholders. Field probation officers are
a critical part of implementing this community-oriented approach. Few scholars, how-
ever, have evaluated probation departments’ organizational capacities to implement
this change in light of the legal vulnerabilities to torts faced by these officers. We use
in-depth interview data from a sample of field probation officers in eastern Washington
State to understand how probation officers’ concerns about being sued and their trust
in the organization may affect its capacity to innovate. The theoretical and policy impli-
cations of our findings are discussed.
Keywords: probation officer; liability; community-based corrections; prisoner reentry
Probation agencies have experienced record growth in caseloads during the past
quarter century. Between 1980 and 2006, the adult probation rate in the United
States increased approximately 120% (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2007; U.S.
Authors’ Note: This project was supported by Grant No. 1999-CE-VX-0007 awarded by the National
Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, and by Washington State
University. Points of view in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official
position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice or Washington State University. We are also thankful
for the access and time given to this project by the employees of the Washington State Department of
Corrections. An earlier version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of
Criminal Justice Sciences, Seattle, WA, March 14-17, 2007.Correspondence concerning this article should
be addressed to Laurie A. Drapela, Program in Criminal Justice, Washington State University Vancouver,
14204 NE Salmon Creek Avenue, Vancouver, WA 98686; e-mail:
Drapela, Lutze / Innovation in Community Corrections 365
Census Bureau, 1980). Several jurisdictions responded to their increased workloads
with innovation (Office of Justice Programs, 1998; Parent & Snyder, 1999). Some
probation agencies enhanced offender surveillance and improved community safety
by stationing officers in neighborhoods (Clear & Cannon, 2002; Lutze, Smith, &
Lovrich, 2000). Officers in these decentralized locations also established social ties
with community members by working with them to solve neighborhood crime prob-
lems, sharing information with them, and participating in local community organiza-
tions (Clear & Cannon, 2002; Parent & Snyder, 1999). These jurisdictions were
applying principles of social capital theory, such as community engagement and
social trust, to community corrections practice (Lutze et al., 2000).
While probation agencies can realize such philosophical shifts in probation prac-
tice through retraining employees or reorganizing the structure of probation ser-
vice, at the end of the day it is the individual probation officers who must implement
this innovation. These field probation officers are the practitioners who are primar-
ily responsible for strengthening the relationship between the agency and its citi-
zenry, but they are the most vulnerable of all officers in the organization to civil
liability lawsuits. This is because their principal duties of offender tracking and
monitoring are considered by the courts to be administrative in nature. Officers per-
forming administrative duties tend to have the least amount of legal protection from
lawsuits, whereas those engaging in quasijudicial functions, such as offender release
and revocation, enjoy the greatest amount of protection (del Carmen, Barnhill,
Bonham, Hignite, & Jermstad, 2001; Morgan, Belbot, & Clark, 1997).
The following study considers how probation agencies’ desires to innovate and
the threat of liability lawsuits affect probation officers’ perceptions of their abilities
to implement this decentralized, community-oriented type of supervision. We focus
specifically on field probation officers for two reasons. First, these are the officers
who are largely responsible for implementing community-based probation and who
are at the greatest risk of being held legally liable than other types of officers in the
organization. Second, scholars have explored the potential legal vulnerabilities of
community-oriented policing for law enforcement officers (Worrall, 1998; Worrall
& Marenin, 1998), but the liability risks for probation service has received little
attention from the academic community.
We use a case-study approach to examine how the contravening organizational
forces of liability and innovation affect a sample of field probation officers in
Spokane, Washington. This city serves as the research setting because it is one of the
few jurisdictions in the country to implement community-based probation, in which
probation officers are colocated with police officers in neighborhood-based substa-
tions. In addition, Washington State places no financial limit on the civil damage
awards successful plaintiffs may receive. It has also substantially narrowed its liabil-
ity protections for field probation officers over the past 40 years (Tardif & McKenna,
2005). Thus, these officers are in a unique position to assess how such competing
forces affect an organization’s capacity to innovate.

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