by Heather R. Falks, Deputy General Counsel • Office of General Counsel
Probation departments are often large, with many employees, and as a result can be challenging for judges as managers. But proactive management best practices can help judges set their departments up for success and reduce the potential for problems before they occur.
Why Probation Oversight Matters
Judges are directly responsible for the management of probation departments.
“Probation officers shall serve at the pleasure of the appointing court and are directly responsible to and subject to the orders of the court.”Lake County Board of Commissioners v. State of Indiana, 181 N.E.3d 960, (citing I.C. § 11-13-1-1(c)). The judiciary has primary authority over probation officer’s employment. I.C. §§ 11-13-1-1, -3, -8, -9.
As court employees, probation officers are held to high ethical standards because Rule 2.12 of the Code of Judicial Conduct mandates that judges require all court staff and others subject to their control to “act in a manner consistent with the judge’s obligations” under the code.
The Management Relationship
Chief probation officers are hired to assist with the management of the probation department, but judges are still responsible for providing oversight of the chief probation officer and the department. Each county is different: some assign one judge to be the managing judge for the probation department while others manage the probation department as a group. Either way, designating a specific judge for communication about probation management issues gives the chief probation officer a single point of contact for guidance and ensures proper oversight.
The judge should be involved in the administrative management of the probation department to ensure compliance with employment laws and the Code of Judicial Conduct. Having consistent and regular dialogue with the probation department about administrative matters does not constitute ex parte communication. While it is necessary and expected that the judge will address management and employment issues with the probation department, judges and probation officers must ensure they are making “reasonable efforts to avoid receiving factual information that is not part of the record” pursuant to Rule 2.9.
The chief probation officer is responsible for day-to-day management decisions, and the judge should be kept informed about all major decisions and concerns that arise. The judge should be informed about issues such as:
- ethical concerns
- policy changes
Judges are encouraged to have a regularly scheduled monthly meeting with their chief probation officer to discuss these matters. Regular meetings encourage an open dialogue, lessen the likelihood of a surprise employment issue arising, and allow the judge to provide ongoing guidance and assistance.
Discipline, Terminations, and Ethics
The judge should be informed about discipline and performance concerns because these can become ethical issues for the judge if they aren’t properly managed. A chief probation officer may not recognize that a particular discipline issue is also an ethics concern. Making it a common practice for the chief probation officer to keep the judge informed of disciplinary matters will allow the judge to intervene when necessary to prevent a greater problem from developing.
It is also important to know how the chief probation officer manages the office—specifically, what kind of policies are in place. Chief probation officers should have:
- regular staff meetings
- yearly reviews for probation staff
- policies for how they distribute caseloads and how they handle complaints
Bad policies lead to unhappy employees and bad morale. Regularly scheduled meetings between the judge and the chief probation officer will help prevent small errors from escalating into bigger problems.
The judge should give the chief probation officer and the deputy chief an annual performance review to highlight their successes. Often chief and deputy chief probation officers feel unappreciated; making a deliberate effort to recognize what they are doing well can help their morale and prevent burn out. The performance review should also address areas for improvement and goals for the upcoming year. Progress toward meeting these goals can be discussed throughout the year during their monthly meetings.
Counties with combined community correction and probation departments have special considerations related to probation staff management. It is important to remember that the court is required by law to manage all employees who are probation officers. If a community corrections officer becomes a probation officer as part of a merger, county officials must be informed those employees will then be managed by the court.
Some counties with combined systems have a chief probation officer managing both probation employees and community corrections employees. In those situations, community corrections employees are county employees who are reporting to a court employee.
Courts should have a plan in place with their executive branch counterparts for how the chief probation officer should handle discipline of those county employees. The court must maintain authority to hire and terminate court employees, but the county may want to retain authority or input on matters related to county employees, even though they are being managed by a court employee.
A combined department should also have a written policy that clearly states the chain of command and employees’ ethical requirements. There can be separate policy statements for court and county employees, or the differences can be outlined in the department handbook. Because court employees are bound by the Code of Judicial Conduct and held to a high ethical standard, all interested parties should agree on how these standards will be enforced and to whom they will apply. It is best to have a plan in place before there is a problem because it is not ideal to start these discussions in the middle of an employment crisis.
Implementing these proactive management practices will help the court carry out its oversight responsibilities while establishing an open line of communication with the chief probation officer.