During my 10 years as a Louisiana Probation and Parole (PNP) officer, I kept hand sanitizer with me at all times. PNP officers are exposed to a wide array of potential health hazards. As a first aid instructor for PNP, I taught officers about the dangers of airborne pathogens along with a variety of other public health threats. COVID-19 has elevated the risks that PNP officers already face when going into homes and engaging those on community supervision.
It is time to consider alternatives to in-person contacts for those on community supervision who do not require close contact in order to be safely supervised in the community. A “one-size fits all” approach requiring in-person meetings with everyone on probation and parole, regardless of their minimal risk, is expensive, functions as an impediment to employment, and puts PNP officers at an unnecessary risk.
Just prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, HB 77 was introduced to the Louisiana Legislature to allow PNP officers to utilize technology as a platform for supervising those who do not require constant in-person contacts, allowing those individuals to avoid missing work in order to comply with their meeting requirements. This was good policy before the risks aggravated by COVID19 and will remain good policy long after.
Many criminal justice advocates have proposed the suspension of all office and home visits during this pandemic. Right on Crime contends that alternatives to in-person meetings are certainly preferred, but PNP officers should retain discretion to conduct an in-person meeting if their experience dictates that public safety would be otherwise compromised. This is something that the Louisiana Department of Corrections has implemented in response to COVID19. HB 77 ensures that a PNP officer’s discretion to utilize technology to supervise those on probation and parole remain after the pandemic is over, which is a practical and inexpensive way to protect both PNP officers and those whom they supervise.
In addition to minimizing health risks, reducing the number of unnecessary in-person meetings frees up bandwidth for PNP officers to focus attention on those who do require close supervision. Further, HB77 would benefit people who are employed as well as their employers by allowing virtual check-ins that prevent having to take time off work to accommodate an in-person visit. This is especially helpful for people who work offshore, or on turn-arounds which are conducted at refineries and may last several months There are too many unnecessary employment barriers for people with criminal backgrounds, and PNP policy should not be one of those barriers. Many employers do not want to hire someone who has to miss work on a regular basis or have a probation officer show up at their place of business.
In this “new normal” and in a time of “shelter in place,” we are all experiencing a greater reliance on technology to complete routine tasks. Reforms, such as those proposed by HB 77, allows the use of technology to improve productivity, while decreasing the unnecessary risks or challenges associated with in-person contact. The overwhelming majority of PNP officers are dedicated to assisting the people on their caseloads so that they can become productive, law abiding citizens. They deserve to have common-sense tools to make their jobs more efficient, safer, and effective at preventing persons from returning back to prison.