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Q&A with Sean Ryan, Chief of Adult Probation, Bucks County

CriminalJusticePrograms.com interviews Sean R. Ryan, Chief of Probation for Bucks County, PA. Sean has had more than 35 years of experience working in parole and probation. He studied social psychology as an undergraduate and earned a master's degree in education/social restoration. Below Sean talks about a career in probation and what he sees for the future of the field.

Q: What is your current position?

I'm the Chief Adult Probation and Parole Officer in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Bucks County Borders both Philadelphia and the State of New Jersey.

Q: What exactly does a probation career entail?

Currently, Bucks County has 48 adult probation/parole officers. They are considered "peace officers" (POs) and have the authority to arrest offenders on probation/parole anywhere in the Commonwealth of PA. The adult probation/parole department falls under the judicial branch of government and we report directly to the President Judge of the County. We are responsible for supervising anyone placed on probation or released on parole in Bucks County. Our current caseload averages approximately 125 probationers/parolees per PO. Supervision entails enforcing the general rules/regulations of probation/parole as well as any special conditions ordered by the court.

We are a "field-based" department and each of our POs independently supervises their caseload in the community. The level of supervision is based on the outcome of an actuarial tool that we use to gauge an offenders risk level. Supervision involves meeting with offenders and family members at their approved residence, reviewing their court expectations, verifying employment and treatment requirements, and discussing the stressors that they are experiencing. We see our role as a "first-line counselor" as well as a "broker of services."

Besides supervising offenders, POs also have the authority and duty to arrest and/or transport probationers/parolees who violate supervision. Before a PO is granted permanent status with the department, they are required to pass a "Use of Force" and "Arrest/Transport" training that provides these skills. If an offender violates their supervision, he or she is brought back to the court and the PO is responsible for outlining the violation and presenting the department's recommendation.

Q: How did you get started in probation/parole?

I studied social psychology at a liberal arts college and had a desire to work with people who were experiencing problems in their lives. Before I graduated, I received a notice that a local university was offering a degree in education that allowed students to work with disadvantaged populations. I applied and was accepted. My placement ended up being at maximum security prison in suburban Philadelphia. This placement allowed me to work with offenders on death row, teach basic academic skills and co-facilitate a basic sex offender therapy group. I made contacts in the prison and one of those moved on to a supervisor position in Bucks County and contacted me when there was an opening. I went to the library and researched the probation/parole role and spoke to a PO about his duties and responsibilities. Here it is 35 years later, and I still find this field very rewarding and challenging.

Q: What education is required for this role?

Most adult probation/parole departments only require that an applicant have a degree in a social science field along with two years of paid professional experience. Often, an advanced degree in the social sciences can substitute for the two years experience. I have conducted many interviews over the years and I also looked at what the student was involved in during college. Did they do a student placement at a social service agency? Did they do a practicum (paid or unpaid)? Did they do volunteer work? The degree is essential, but the field-based, academic placements are equally as important.

Q: Are there any specific traits that work well for someone interested in a probation career?

The first traits that come to mind are: maturity, flexibility, organization and self-motivation. In many cases you will be working with people who come from totally different backgrounds and have different life experiences and values than you do. Being able to work effectively in this role requires a strong sense of your own strengths and limitations.

It is important that you have good listening skills, including the ability to understand someone else's perspective. Many people also find it very difficult to "switch gears" with the varied responsibilities of the job, which may include arresting one of your clients if they violate probation or parole.

I also tell people that you need to be able to pace yourself and separate your work from your personal life. The nature of the job requires you to work odd hours and possibly weekends, which can put a strain on relationships and family life.

Q: What should new probation professionals expect as they start their careers?

For the first six months, a PO is on probationary status in which he or she is provided with an overview of the police procedures, trained in arrest/transportation and self defense, exposed to the various court hearings they will be involved in and paired up with a Senior PO to go on "ride-a-longs." The Sr. PO also acts as a mentor and provides feedback on the new PO's progress. The new PO is also assigned to a supervisor who meets with them weekly and begins to assign cases. Performance evaluations and feedback are provided after two and six months. If the PO is granted permanent status, he or she is gradually assigned cases over six months until a full caseload is reached. A supervisor will continue to be involved, discussing cases and concerns and introducing resources and other departments. All POs are also required to undergo 40 hours of professional training each year.

Q: What is the reality vs. public perception of the career?

Unfortunately, not many people really understand what an adult probation/parole officer does. Often, we are confused with "case workers" or "social workers." People are very surprised when they find out about our arrest, search and testifying responsibilities. Unfortunately, most people only hear about probation/parole when someone breaks it. We definitely have to do a better job of informing the public of the "success cases."

Q: What are some of the challenges in the career?

Growing up in a rural area, it was a real "eye opener" for me to work with some of the offenders who came from an urban background. Through experience and regular dialogue with my colleagues, I was able to effectively adjust. You really have to be able adjust your approach.

The hours I worked, which included evenings, nights and weekends, were a challenge too. A PO really has to be organized, and be able to set priorities.

Finally, I really struggled with whether I wanted to remain a PO or pursue some other type of employment. I was fortunate enough to be promoted in the probation/parole field to Supervisor, Deputy Chief and Adult Chief PO. The Governor also selected me to serve two terms on the State Parole Board. I have also had the privilege of acting as a consultant to various private entities as well as teaching criminal justice courses at a local university.

Q: What are some of the benefits of the career?

As mentioned above, if you stay in the field, there are opportunities for advancement. This line of work also gives you a perspective, as well as experience, that other private employers value. I get great satisfaction working with other dedicated people who are interested in public safety and helping others. Although I assure you that you will have your share of headaches, after 35 years, I can say that there is no other line of work that I would rather be doing.

Q: What kinds of changes have there been in the field in the last few years?

In the past 10 years there has been more of an emphasis on evidence-based practice. A variety of researchers are looking at not only "what works" but also "what doesn't work." When I started, I was given a caseload of 40 people in my first week of work and more or less told to do something with them. There has also been an increase in the use of actuarial tools to assist POs in determining an offender's propensity to reoffend. As caseloads reach 150 in many departments, the ability to classify offenders by risk and need is definitely essential. It's encouraging to see different approaches to working with offenders who are suffering from years of substance abuse, for example, as well. The development of specialty courts (drug, veterans, and MH/MR Courts, etc.) is certainly exciting and a step in the right direction, in my opinion.

Q: What do you see for the future of probation careers?

In the 1990s, many states attempted to address the "crime problem" by building large, expensive prisons. As those institutions fill up, we find that we can no longer afford this approach and are starting to look at which offenders are lower risk and can be safely and effectively managed in the community. I definitely see the probation/parole field expanding more than any other aspect of the criminal justice system.

Q: Any other particular recommendations for aspiring probation officers?

Before you go for your first probation/parole job interview, make sure you understand what a PO does. Research the position and contact a local or state PO to find out exactly what he or she does. Also, ask yourself if you have the abilities and attributes needed to do this type of work.

I would also suggest that you take the civil service exams for a Federal Probation Officer as well as State Parole Agent (if applicable). Even though there may not be immediate openings, you will have the requirement completed if/when positions do open.

You also need to be aware that part of the selection process is to obtain State Police and FBI RAP sheets on all applicants. Your behavior in/out of college can definitely effect whether or not you will be selected as an adult probation/parole officer.