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Prior research purports that probation officers (POs) view the differences between women and men clients as emotional, with women being more "in-touch" with their emotions and "self-aware" of their issues (Welsh, 2019). Since probation client satisfaction links to relationships with POs (DeLude et al., 2012), it is also important to examine clients' perceptions of POs using a gendered lens that considers the potential variations in women and men clients' views of officers. This study uses 15 semi-structured interviews with women and men clients in one Northwestern probation agency. We examine clients' perceptions of the officer-client relationship, finding that clients desire markers of the therapeutic alliance (care, communication, and collaboration) garnered through motivational interviewing.
Keywords: Community supervision, gender, probation officer-client relationship, motivational interviewing, therapeutic alliance
Within psychotherapy, academics and practitioners understand that a strong therapeutic alliance (TA), or the relationship between a therapist and a client, is vital for therapy to achieve its desired outcomes (Bordin, 1979; Ross et al., 2008). Similarly, modern community supervision models emphasize the importance of TA, often called "rapport," due to the impact that it has on increasing client satisfaction with supervision (Delude et al., 2012) and reducing recidivism (Bonta et al., 2008). However, even with the recognition of the importance of TA in supervision, the role that gender plays in shaping it receives less attention. Britton (1997; 2000) notes that organizations reflect our gendered society, and like society, organizations perpetuate gendered inequalities. As such, the gendered organization logic embedded in community corrections organizations may impact the development of TA (Britton, 1997). Extant research examining how gender shapes the supervision setting typically focuses on the POs' perspective. For example, studies have shown that POs view differences in women and men clients as emotional, with women being more "in-touch" with their emotions and "self-aware" of their issues (Welsh, 2019). However, there is still a need to focus on the client's point of view to determine whether gender influences the client’s needs, desires, or perspectives.
Unlike the traditional therapeutic setting, TA within the supervision setting is complicated by the non-voluntary nature of the relationship and law enforcement role of the officer (Trotter, 2006; Ross et al., 2008). Within this environment, officers develop quality officer-client relationships that balance their dual roles as law enforcement agents and social workers (Skeem et al., 2007; Trotter, 2013). To assist POs in balancing these roles and developing TA, many departments promote using Motivational Interviewing (MI) (Clark et al., 2006). MI is a collaborative communication style that aims to strengthen client motivation and commitment to change (Miller & Rollnick, 2012). MI facilitates balancing a PO's dual roles, and it has proven successful with diverse populations such as racialized individuals and individuals with substance use disorders (Clark et al., 2006). Nevertheless, whether it varies in its effectiveness across gender is underexplored, especially for women (Hettema et al., 2005; Lundahl et al., 2010).
Several tools measure the quality of TA. The two most popular in community supervision are the Working Alliance Inventory (WAI; Horvath & Greenberg, 1989) and the Dual-Role Inventory (Skeem et al., 2007). Based on Bordin's original theory, the WAI's items focus on goals, tasks, and bonds, while the DRI introduces concepts of caring/fairness, trust, and toughness to measure TA. While these tools are valid and robust, the items are based almost entirely on theoretical conceptions of TA and previous work with non-voluntary clients (Bordin, 1976; Trotter, 2006). While Skeem and colleagues did consider focus-group data when developing their scale, qualitative studies still need to utilize probation clients' experiences to verify the importance of TA domains and identify PO strategies that promote the development of TA.
To address these gaps, this study examines the developmental process of TA with a particular focus on the role MI plays in the process. In doing so, we highlight the type of actions POs can couple with their MI techniques to elicit strong ratings of TA domains (e.g., trust, fairness). Furthermore, we use a gendered lens—consideration for the potential variations in women and men clients' perceptions of POs—to identify any gendered dimensions (similar or different) in the officer-client relationship from the client's perspective.
Edwin Bordin developed the concept of TA. Specifically, Bordin (1979) theorized that TA has three primary constructs: the development of bonds, the assignment of tasks, and agreement on goals (Johnson & Wright, 2002). Within a therapeutic environment, work depends on TA (Cournoyer et al., 2007). The non-voluntary nature of the officer-client relationship complicates the development of TA in the supervision setting (Trotter, 2006). Unlike traditional therapists, POs have a law enforcement role they must fulfill. Like other criminal legal agencies (e.g., prisons, police departments), males dominate positions in law enforcement roles and in community corrections. Males are situated within a criminal legal system designed primarily by and for men. In these settings, gendered norms exist for women and men officers. Norms assume that Men will align with the "law enforcer" and women will identify with the "social worker" role (Britton, 1997; Martin & Jurik, 2007). This is partly because women are perceived as possessing more social/interpersonal skills and natural de-escalation tactics per gender norms and stereotypes (Britton, 1997; Martin & Jurik, 2007). However, research has shown that quality officer-client relationships exist when POs balance their law enforcement role with their social work role (Skeem et al., 2007).
Good interpersonal relationships in supervision establish a setting where effective correctional interventions may occur (Haas & Spence, 2017). General mistrust of law enforcement coupled with traumatic experiences within the criminal legal system may cause many clients to hold a host of negative preconceived notions about justice workers. Disrupting these feelings is possible by developing strong relationships characterized by trust, fairness, and an authoritative—not authoritarian—style (Skeem et al., 2007; Kennealy et al., 2012; Viglione et al., 2017). By displaying empathy (Trotter, 2006), respect (Delude et al., 2012), and care (Gleicher et al., 2013), POs effectively build trust with their client. Trust is vital because the PO's ability to be an active participant, or change agent, in their client's change process depends on client disclosure (Bourgon et al., 2012). Consequently, clients need to feel safe to share good and bad things with the PO without fear of the officer judging, belittling, or berating them (Gleicher et al., 2013).
However, what a quality relationship looks and feels like to clients of different genders may vary; this topic is underexplored as research most often comes from officers' perspectives, not clients themselves (e.g., Gaarder et al., 2004; Seng et al., 2005). Research that centers on the client's perspective on PO communication techniques often uses samples of women and shows that clients prefer non-authoritarian communication over authoritarian communication (Cornacchione et al., 2016; Morash et al., 2018). Moreover, women are especially in need of a support system during reentry, the lack of which research links to increases in criminality (Covington & Bloom, 2003). Within the context of PO support specifically, women on parole with substance use disorders engage more in treatment (Holmstrom et al., 2017). Alternatively, one study found that men prefer motivational communication over direct orders (Viglione et al., 2017). These gendered dimensions in community supervision perceptions and preferences of clients are worth exploring in the context of POs that use motivational interviewing, a more supportive approach to supervision.
William Miller and Stephen Rollnick developed MI in 1991 for use with individuals struggling with substance use. MI operates from a position that clients can change, have knowledge about themselves that is vital to change, and that clients should play a key role in determining the details of their change process (Armstrong et al., 2016). The MI framework consists of four principles. First, engaging involves the development of TA between worker and client and is a prerequisite for the other principles. Second, focusing is the process in which the worker centers the discussion around the disparity between their goals and behaviors. Third, evoking involves drawing out the client's motivations for change. Lastly, planning occurs when a client has displayed readiness for change, at which point the worker assists with developing a mutually agreed-upon plan of action (Miller & Rollnick, 2012).
Clark and colleagues (2006) note several reasons MI is compatible with evidence-based supervision. First, MI reinforces the rehabilitative aspects of supervision because it forces POs to commit to a supportive therapeutic role. Second, MI offers communication strategies that allow officers to navigate violations, disagreements, and other difficulties while maintaining their position as a helper.
A growing body of literature shows that MI is effective in the community supervision setting, but most study samples include almost all men (e.g., Harper & Hardy, 2000; McMurran, 2009). Even still, the literature on TA with women clients suggests that MI should be effective for women as well, but in nuanced ways. In other words, MI techniques may have different effects on women and men because of the differing perceived importance each hold for the TA domains. For instance, there is a cultural belief that women value intimate relationships more than men and that those relationships are vital contributors to their success in community supervision (Bui & Morash, 2010). Indeed, Morash and colleagues' (2015) work with 330 women probation clients showed that PO's supportiveness reduced anxiety and increased crime avoidance for women. Furthermore, research shows that when women clients have a positive perception of their relationship with their supervising PO, they are more willing to receive advice from their PO and develop a sense of loyalty to them (Rex, 1999; Robinson, 2005).
To explicitly consider gender within this research is to acknowledge that people's distinct social positions contribute to varied perspectives about the world, including their justice experiences and a specific standpoint with which to view it. Feminist standpoint theorists call this "situated knowledge." (Haraway, 1988). While these studies illustrate broadly that gender impacts communication strategies, a gendered lens does not explain well the features of TA and the role of MI. Specifically, the extent to which MI strategies used by POs differ by clients' gender, what types and/or how much communication clients desire from POs, and the impact of such communication on the TA is unclear.
Community supervision conceives TA using the parameters set by the empirical tools used to measure the construct (e.g., WAI, DRI). Consequently, studies that examine officer-client TA using these scales evaluate the strength of TA based on the presence or absence of the domains (i.e., goals, tasks, fairness). Clients' perspectives of POs' practices are less studied, which leads to the presence or absence of such domains in the relationship. Additionally, few studies use a gendered lens to investigate client variations in relationship-building efforts with POs (e.g., Cornacchione et al., 2016; Holmstrom et al., 2017; Morash et al., 2015, 2018). This paper partially fills these gaps by exploring the gendered nature of the client's perception of their relationship(s) with at least one supervising PO over their probation history. We highlight the importance of practices that exhibit care, collaboration, and transparency. Specifically, we discuss how these themes represent the foundation for the officer-client relationship and how they work together to generate honesty, trust, and fairness. The findings from this study expand the field's understanding of the important aspects of supervision conducted by the PO from the client's point of view and represent an addition to the toolbox of evidence-based supervision framed by a gendered perspective.
This qualitative study focuses on individuals on probation (i.e., clients) in a Northwest County of a Northwestern U.S. state. The data comes from a larger research project that initially considered POs' and clients' perceptions of an ideal officer-client relationship in a community supervision setting. This study uses only the 15 interviews with individuals on probation, not POs, and reanalyzes them using a gendered framework. Across our sample of 15 individuals on probation, approximately half are women (n = 8), and half are men (n = 7). The sample contains eight women clients, mostly white, primarily on post-prison supervision and typically on supervision for several years (1 year to 31 years). The seven men clients are mainly white, either on post-prison or probation supervision, and usually on supervision for several years (one year to 17 years). Three of the women in the sample and one of the men were individuals of a historically marginalized population.1 The research questions for this study include: (1) How do clients conceive of a good relationship with a PO? and (2) What does it look like to have a good relationship with a PO based on gender? The institutional IRB board and the probation office’s administration approved all the research protocols.
The researchers collected the data from the probation client sample using a snowball sampling strategy via several access points. We recruited participants and distributed recruitment flyers at drug and alcohol treatment facilities and on social media. Additionally, we asked every PO interviewed as a part of the broader project who received a hard copy and digital copy of the recruitment flyer to inform individuals on their caseloads about the study. However, based on the research protocol under the probation office's direction, the researchers could not interview clients supervised by the POs interviewed for the broader project. Therefore, all participants in this study reported on current and/or prior interactions with and perceptions of one or more POs not interviewed for the study. This means that the information gleaned from interviews does not include any demographic descriptions or accurate counts of the number of POs each participant has had in the past or about their current PO. Finally, we asked all participants if they knew anyone who fit the inclusion criteria and would be interested in participating. We recruited participants by advertising the recruitment flyer described above or from a direct recommendation from other participants or POs. Participants had to be 18 years old and currently on probation or post-prison supervision in Northwest County. Each participant received $20 after their interview as a token of appreciation for their participation. We audio-recorded the interviews with the consent of the participants. Interviews lasted approximately 20 to 45 minutes and took place in a location the participant chose to ensure comfort, privacy, and confidentiality.
The interview guide for this project sought supplemental information to the existing theoretical conceptions of TA in supervision. Specifically, the guide contains broad questions (e.g., "Do you feel your PO is fair?) but also asks follow-up questions (e.g., "Why do you feel that way?" or "How did your PO accomplish this?"). The guide covers the interpersonal themes of honesty, trust, fairness, and disagreement. Further, the guide consists of situational and procedural questions (e.g., "What is most important for you to hear from your PO when you meet with them for the first time?" "Has your PO ever talked to you about their role?"). In addition, there are questions about communication (e.g., "Do you feel your PO listens to you?" "Is there anything about your PO's communication you would change?"). Finally, there are questions about how clients conceive of an ideal relationship (e.g., "Imagine the best PO you can. What would that person be like and why?"). In taking this approach, this study aimed to collect clients' perspectives on effective and non-effective PO strategies. Analysis of the follow-up questions also allows us to determine whether there are any gendered differences between how POs and clients display, during everyday interactions, factors like honesty, trust, and fairness.
Northwest County's community supervision agency currently uses the EPICS model and has done so for the last nine years. The EPICS supervision model is based on the risk-need-responsivity model for effective correctional intervention (Andrews & Bonta, 2010). EPICS training educates POs on the importance of the working relationship between their clients and themselves and the use of MI. Furthermore, EPICS emphasizes developing skills designed to increase the therapeutic potential of correctional programming (Smith et al., 2012; Latessa et al., 2013). Due to the extended commitment to modern supervision ideas, the typical PO in Northwest County may lean toward more of the "helper" than the "authoritarian" style of supervising.
The researchers used a hybrid approach for data analysis, both inductive and deductive. The original project used a deductive approach focused on certain TA domains identified in the literature. Researchers returned to that same dataset to recode it using an inductive approach with a gendered lens, meaning researchers paid particular attention to the specific perspectives of women and men clients. We used this approach to draw out aspects of their perceptions of the PO relationship that may be specific to their gendered needs while on supervision.
After transcribing the interviews, we uploaded the transcripts to Atlas.ti, a qualitative data management software used for coding and analysis (Muhr, 1991). Using a hierarchal coding strategy, the researchers aimed to broadly code the data and then narrow the codes as themes became clearer and gendered dimensions (i.e., similarities and differences) appeared more explicitly. The data was open-coded by two researchers, assigning specific codes to words, phrases, or paragraphs in the interview documents denoting salient concepts and categories when they emerged (Charmaz, 2006) pertaining to TA domains and MI techniques, as well as client demographics. The first coding round extracted the clients' preferences to understand what they generally preferred in the officer-client relationship. Each researcher coded half of the 15 interviews this way and then switched halves of the dataset to open code the other half. To ensure inter-coder reliability, after each coding round, the two researchers reviewed every “preference” code until reaching a consensus regarding the code's inclusion and classification. During the second coding round, researchers assigned a specific code to delineate an instance where the clients indicated an aspect of probation they liked or disliked (Charmaz, 2006). Additionally, the study differentiates preferences between the PO relationship and the overall probation process. Lastly, the third coding round deciphered the perceptions about the different TA domains related to care, collaboration, transparency, honesty, trust, and fairness.
The analysis looked at the codes separately by gender through the software’s query system. All codes on TA domains and MI techniques generated excerpts of client narratives across gender. This allowed us to determine the singular instances of importance related to each domain and technique discussed by women and men clients. Researchers then noted the gendered dimensions in interviews based on clients' preferences about the PO relationship or process. Then they discussed them together to pinpoint the most salient dimensions found in our comparison. We include representative quotes in the findings section based on the gendered approach.
First, we found that what clients look for most from the officer-client relationship are demonstrations of care, collaboration, and transparency, which align with the MI framework. Second, we found that displays of care, collaboration, and transparency shape client perceptions of honesty, trust, and fairness. Third, we found that POs exhibit care, collaboration, and transparency through communication, often using MI techniques. Our results also reveal actions that officers can take which enhance the effectiveness of these communication techniques. Finally, these observations hold for women and men. The gendered differences we found add nuance to the other main findings, but overall, clients' perspectives did not significantly vary.
Due to the dehumanizing nature of the criminal legal system, clients are sensitive to poor treatment by individuals working within that system (Polizzi et al., 2014). Therefore, it is vital that POs signal to their clients that they see them as human beings, not simply clients on supervision. POs need to build a personable relationship with clients to accomplish this. Our findings show that this is possible by using small gestures. The small gestures reported by clients represent experiences where POs temporarily pierce the strict professional veil of the client and PO roles in ways that allow clients to feel seen as a person. Small gestures noted in our analyses include beginning the relationship on a first-name basis, asking personal questions to get to know the client, engaging in small talk during office visits, and not reading a client's file before the first meeting.
In addition to these small gestures, clients report being keenly aware of non-verbal communication from their PO. Non-verbal communication that causes clients to feel their PO does not care about them includes having a stern or aggressive demeanor and asking them personal questions while not seeming to be listening (i.e., looking at their computer). Conversely, active listening is an essential non-verbal communication aspect for the clients. The MI framework captures active listening in their OARS techniques of reflexive listening and summary (Miller & Rollnick, 1990). Reflective listening begins with the worker attentively listening to the client. This is then followed by the worker summarizing what they heard back to the client. These techniques show that the worker understands and values the client's perspective (Ossman, 2004). Leon talks about the impact of his PO using these MI skills. He says, "She took time to actually listen and let me finish...She would completely stop and look and listen even harder, say back things I was saying to make sure she was understanding me correctly. I think that is kind of rare these days that she did that." For Leon, being able to express himself and be heard disrupted the feeling he had throughout other parts of the criminal legal system of being "another person, another number that is going through the system." Instead, his PO using reflective listening and summary techniques allowed him to feel seen and like he was in a relationship where his PO cared about his behavior.
Finally, clients report their POs exhibiting care through diverse types of engagement, specifically, engaging with clients in a manner that communicates verbally or through actions that the PO is on the client's side and willing to help them succeed. Both women and men clients respond positively when their POs communicate that they want to help, believe in them, are willing to support them, and are not out to punish them. Expressing these sentiments verbally can disrupt the stereotypical view of a PO as just another law enforcement officer. For example, when talking about her PO, Lucinda says, "Him telling me that he cares about my sobriety, and he cares about me succeeding, I mean, like, I have never had a PO actually say that to me." This disruption allows clients to see their PO as a support person and a resource, as seen in Holmstrom and colleagues’ (2017) study. For instance, Julie talked about her PO telling her they were proud of Julie as a turning point in the relationship. She said, "[I]t just seemed like it was a whole different PO. It was the first time that she ever validated what I did in a positive way." Moreover, these sentiments can be reinforced by a PO's actions. Lil talks about how her PO connected her to resources. She says:
Hey, I am going to need to get on a housing list, make sure that I am getting in these programs, and something like I needed clothes vouchers when I got out of prison, and bam, she got them for me … And then she helped me with the bus. So, she has been probably the best PO that I have had.
Lily appreciated that her PO extended her much-needed knowledge of services and the means to access them.
Considering gendered differences in engagement desires, the women clients in this sample generally prefer to have their PO take on the role of a mentor compared to the men clients. Because of this, the women clients report wanting their POs to be open about themselves. For example, Becky describes her PO talking about being a mother. She says:
Me and her will talk about the experiences she has been through with motherhood because [this is] my first child. So, I asked her about advice, and I ask her about stuff to do with my recovery, and being the mother, she will give me little pointers here and there. Certain stuff that she will say that I can really understand and take into consideration.
Becky's PO revealing details of their personal life that align with Becky's experience gives them authority beyond that of a law enforcement agent. Instead, Becky feels bonded to and listens to her PO because of their shared experience as mothers. The women clients also report being cognizant of how quickly POs respond to their calls, texts, or emails. Some women complain about their POs taking days to respond and how the lack of promptness has caused them difficulty. Conversely, other women report that their POs' prompt responses make them feel like their concerns are significant and that they are being listened to.
The men clients in this sample did not discuss the promptness of communication but wanted extra communication between office visits. For the men, extra contacts expressed a willingness of their PO to go beyond their job duties to support them. For example, when describing his PO, Romero says, "He would check on me, man. He did not need to text me and check on me. Even now, he still does it, and I have been on reduced [supervision] for like five months. When I took a year [sober], he remembered that I was taking a year and messaged me." MI promotes the development of a working relationship in which the service worker takes on the role of treatment advocate and displays a level of compassion that forefronts the welfare and interests of the client (Miller & Rollnick, 2012). Our findings show that POs can accomplish this through displays of care. Specifically, clients report POs exhibiting care through small gestures that allow them to feel seen and valued, through non-confrontational body language and active listening skills, and through engaging with clients while emphasizing their role as a support person, resource, and motivator in the clients' lives. Additionally, findings revealed actions POs can take that reinforce their MI communication techniques. Finally, the gender differences in this sample, more prompt engagement for women and desire for more engagement between visits for men, were in the type of behavior women and men say exhibits care.
Quality relationships in supervision occur when POs successfully balance their dual roles of law enforcer and social worker (Skeem et al., 2007; Trotter, 2013). Moreover, this balance is carried out by POs emphasizing both roles equally. However, we find that the specter of the PO's law enforcement role is so present that clients report wanting their PO to minimize their authority through collaborating with them and being transparent about the supervision process.
Women and men clients report wanting their PO to express a desire to be in a collaborative relationship from the outset. Like care, this collaborative sentiment is most effective when accompanied by actions that reinforce it. Giving voice is a MI technique POs can use, which establishes that the client's point of view has value (Miller & Rollnick, 2012). A PO accomplishes this by allowing clients to ask questions, voice displeasure, dictate some aspects of their supervision, and express their expectations about the supervision process. For instance, Denise, who has been under supervision for 26 years, feels as if she knows what works and does not work for her. When describing what makes her relationship work with her PO, Denise says she tells her PO:
Listen your program is not going to work for me. I understand that these are the things that need to be done, but these are the ways that I need to do them because your way does not work with what it is I'm trying to do to better my life. You want me to do a program that statistically is supposed to work this way. I am not a statistic.
Denise believes she has a strong relationship with her PO because her PO allows her to express herself and is willing to collaborate with her to make a supervision plan. Beyond giving voice, findings show that a PO's willingness to adjust according to their client's life circumstances (e.g., rescheduling a meeting) or accepting their client's word at face value are effective collaboration tools. Ale's experience highlights the positive effects of a collaborative officer-client relationship. He says, "I will go visit her and say, "This is what I'm doing, and this is what's going on." [Then] she would be like, "okay, fine." And I felt like I had taken my power back. Instead of them needing to tell me what to do, I was telling them what I was doing..." For Alex, his PO allowing him the agency to make his own decisions was empowering. Clients report that a PO's willingness to adjust based on the client's needs and placing trust in the client's word effectively reduces the perceived authority that POs have over a client's life. When this occurs, clients feel less like they have someone bearing down on them, dictating their lives, and more like someone holding them accountable but allowing them to live.
Transparency in decision-making and supervision processes is another way clients report POs can reduce the unequal power dynamic between the two parties. The first meeting is where the PO can accomplish this when the PO goes through their expectations, especially those that can lead to jail sanctions. Interestingly, while walking through the expectations is important for both women and men, it has a slightly different effect for each. Women clients in this sample report appreciating when their PO combines transparency with care. Karen describes her PO reviewing their expectations together, saying:
It was really nice to see that despite the fact that I knew she was going to meet several other women that day that she went through each of those points and took time to make individual notes so that when she goes back to the office after she has seen 10 of us, she can reference back and know individual responses and just make sure that all the points were covered.
For Karen, walking through the expectations with diligence while taking notes created the feel of an individualized experience. This made her feel like the PO treated her as a person, not "just as a number." Lucinda also talks about the combination of transparency and care. When describing how she prefers her PO to review expectations, she says, "They put you at ease; if he actually tells you not just these are my expectations but that I actually care. I care about my job, and I care about helping the community." As seen here, it is effective for POs to reinforce their role as a helper while reviewing the expectations simultaneously. This may be a needed expression of care due to the authoritative nature of the supervision expectations. As such, a reminder of the PO's desire to help reduces the authoritative feel of the expectations process for women clients.
The men in the sample also talked about the importance of transparent POs, primarily connected to the men's sense of collaboration and autonomy. These men broadly expressed more desire for autonomy over their lives while on supervision than the women. Collaboration is important to men because autonomy is impossible without their PO's cooperation. Specifically, being able to voice their personal goals for supervision and hearing how the PO plans to help them achieve those goals is important to feel a sense of autonomy. Moreover, like the women, men clients in this sample also want their POs to review supervision expectations. However, unlike the women, men clients desire this because it allows them to feel like they are in control of their lives again. Chad describes how he attempts to garner autonomy with his PO by saying, "Basically, just like to let me know that things are all right or can be all right if certain steps are taken. Kind of like if she just like puts it on me and that if I do good things, good things will happen. Like no vengeance on their part." For Chad, when a PO lays out a pathway towards success while also offering him space to try to succeed is desired.
MI promotes the development of a collaborative working relationship (Miller & Rollnick, 2012). Additionally, MI tasks POs to adopt a perspective that values client autonomy, perspective, and ability to change (Clark et al., 2006). Our findings show that the best formation of this collaborative relationship occurs by combining communication expressing the desire to collaborate and following this up with actions that reinforce the sentiment. Actions reported that garner this effect include being transparent about supervision processes, giving voice, allowing clients to dictate their supervision plan, being willing to adjust according to client considerations, and taking the client's word at face value. Both women and men desire transparency about PO decision-making and supervision processes, but we found gendered differences in the effect of this transparency. For women in this sample, transparency equated to care, while transparency linked to collaboration and autonomy for men in this sample.
Almost all clients in our sample felt they could be honest with and trust their PO. Amongst the women clients, one felt that she could not be honest, and one felt she could not trust her PO. Women and men clients spoke about having trepidation about being open to their PO about things that could end them in jail. Even still, clients report that building a relationship marked with honesty and trust is possible in supervision. Specifically, when clients felt they could be honest with or trust their PO, their POs exhibited care, collaboration, and/or transparency.
Clients' experiences where the PO displays of care led to feelings of honesty and trust, including the PO having an upbeat demeanor, using positive reinforcement, checking in on clients between visits, and advocating for clients to obtain resources or in court. Furthermore, moments of collaboration that resulted in feelings of honesty and trust include POs taking their client's word at face value, involving clients in the decision-making processes, expressing a desire to have a collaborative relationship, and agreeing with their client's plan for supervision. Additionally, instances of transparency effectively garnering honesty and trust were focused on POs being open about situations that could put the client in jail and being open about decision-making processes. Overall, PO displays of care, collaboration, and transparency independently affect clients. However, clients often report using them in conjunction with one another to have greater positive effects, resulting in increased honesty and trust.
POs advocating for their clients to receive resources or in court is a powerful tool in the officer-client relationship. These instances of advocating can include finding housing options, recommending a reduced sentence to the judge, and connecting clients with treatment services. For instance, Becky feels she could trust her PO because they advocated for her to obtain needed housing. She says:
Advocating for me; helping me stay in this housing. She has been really helpful and honest about that. My housing manager here isn't really too honest with anybody in these houses. [Instead], I have to go through my PO about it because you have to be on probation to be in these houses.
For Becky, having someone in her corner to help her navigate housing difficulties was extremely helpful and solidified her relationship with her PO. Additionally, supervision clients must sit before the probation judge without representation. As such, situations where their PO advocates for them in court are especially meaningful. Robert talks about his PO advocating for him to get into treatment and how it made him feel like she had his best interests at heart. He says:
She really helped me out with getting into [treatment]. It's something that the courts did not want me to do. They wanted me to either go to prison or just right out into the streets and I really had to fight to get in here. My PO actually had my back and got me a bed here which is where I really wanted to go. She really had my best interests in mind, I believe.
For Robert, connection to a much-needed treatment service through the good-intentioned actions of his PO was touching to him. What is especially notable about POs who earn clients' trust and exhibit honesty is that they combine care, collaboration, and transparency strategies when collaborating with their clients.
Finally, findings show that when POs use all three in conjunction, they also generate feelings of fairness. The three-fold strategy emerges when POs enter a situation involving exchange with their clients. The parameters of this exchange are that POs reward their client's honesty about violating behavior with leniency in sanctioning decisions. For example, Julie readily spoke negatively about her relationship with her PO. However, when asked about honesty and trust, she told a story about turning herself in on a warrant being a turning point in her relationship with her PO. She says:
I had a warrant for like eight months because I was absconding, so I had a warrant. When I turned myself in, she called me on a Sunday and said, "Since you turned yourself in, I'm going to sanction you four days and you get out tomorrow." Then, when I met with her, she was just telling me that she's proud of me for turning myself in and that's good she doesn't want to know what it looked like if I got caught up and it's good of me to turn myself in. And, I just told her that I wanted something new by getting clean like the things that I'm doing now and she gave me an ultimatum, so I have this plan and all the support around me so I can do this but by the time that I see her, I need to have put in some type of footwork for that and if I haven't that she will come up with a plan for me.
Julie's PO rewards her for turning herself in with a reduced jail sanction. Her PO then accompanies this by exhibiting care by telling Julie they are proud of her and expressing concern for what would have happened if she had gotten in more trouble. Finally, Julie's PO collaborates with her about her supervision plan by making a deal with her that if her plan does not work out, Julie will then try her PO's plan.
Another way the exchange can occur is through POs making the exchange parameters clear to the client at the outset of the relationship. For example, Leon talks about the exchange being incredibly impactful in his relationship with his PO. Admittedly, when coming into supervision, Leon was dealing with a substance use disorder to the point that he was high during his first meeting with his PO. During this meeting, Leon's PO offered an exchange, shaping their relationship from that point forward. When retelling this first encounter, Leon says:
I came in and talked to my PO and she goes, "Have you used drugs today?" The first thing that popped into my mind was criminal thinking. I want to say no, but she looks at me and says, "If you tell me the honest answer, I think the outcome would be different than you think," so I told her "Yes" and was completely honest with her and was scared even after I said the truth. She says, "Good, I'm not going to send you to jail." She said, "I appreciate your honesty and what I need from you is to make sure you're calling in and doing these things." And from that point on I was completely honest with her and when I was, she admired the fact, it kind of showed me the good things about being honest.
In this example, Leon's PO sees that he is high and confronts him. Instead of using her authority or threatening him, she uses it as an opportunity to teach Leon the value of honesty. To do so, Leon's PO allows him to be honest while alluding to the probability that the consequences may not be as harsh as he expects. This allows Leon to be honest, which his PO responds to by praising him, acknowledging sobriety may not be immediately possible, and laying out her expectations about his behavior. The effect of this strategy was that Leon felt he could be honest with his PO, trust his PO and that she was fair.
Almost all clients in this study, regardless of gender, could build a trusting and open relationship with their POs even if they had poor prior experiences with them or their first meeting started troubling. The relationships that flourished had POs who combined strategies meaningful to clients; in these instances, clients felt advocated for in several ways, like their feedback was listened to and implemented, and the PO addressed their problematic behavior fairly.
In comparing and contrasting clients' perceptions of a desirable officer-client relationship using a gendered lens, there are three key themes that women and men both appear to expect and need for the relationship to be successful and encourage client change. Findings suggest that clients want a relationship where their PO shows that they care, express a willingness to collaborate, and are transparent about supervision processes and decision-making. POs who can accomplish these things foster a willingness in clients to be honest and a solid foundation of trust with clients. Doing so allows the relationship to be effective at helping clients through the reintegration process.
Although, our findings show that how POs put these values into practice produces gendered nuances amongst the perceptions of women and men in our sample. Oftentimes, research on officer-client relationships uses gender-neutral framing, meaning the work overlooks a client's gender as an essential factor contributing to their relationship experiences with POs. However, when correctional scholarship appears gender-neutral in that it does not explicitly draw attention to the importance of gender, clients' experiences are ultimately measured against norms associated with men, and that may not appropriately capture them and their needs within the research (Daly & Chesney-Lind, 1988; MacKinnon, 1991; Nagel & Johnson, 1994).
Regarding limitations, our study includes a small sample size of clients interviewed from one probation agency, making gender comparisons and other demographics (such as race and age) across clients' responses more challenging. We also do not have interviews with clients' probation officers to corroborate clients' perspectives on their PO relationship. Our intention was not to express statistical generalizability but to deeply explore an issue by attaining social generalizability (Gobo, 2004) via rich qualitative work with a select population of individuals on probation. As such, the data and subsequent analysis reach the qualitative goals of authenticity, trustworthiness, and credibility (Tracy, 2019). Finally, our small sample size impacts how a reader should interpret our findings regarding gendered differences. It is entirely possible that the dimensions we found do not extrapolate well to the larger population of probation clients. We still see our findings highlighting important and unique observations about TA's development and MI's utility. As such, we encourage future researchers to use a similar gendered approach to their studies with a larger sample size to verify our findings.
The overall relationship framework identified in this paper adds essential insights to the current research on TA in the community supervision setting. First, our findings reinforce Skeem and colleagues' (2007) observation of the unique challenges that the non-voluntary nature of the officer-client relationship and the PO's law enforcement role pose to the development of TA. For instance, clients in this sample describe themselves as being fearful of their PO simply because of the power they hold. Research has shown that negative emotions such as fear can fundamentally handicap the strength of the bond in TA and note that the POs' control over the client renders the TA lopsided (Bordin, 1979; Skeem et al., 2007). Feelings of dehumanization (i.e., treatment like a number) from past experiences within the criminal legal system (Polizzi et al., 2014) further compound this observation. Because of this, our findings suggest that clients may enter the relationship over-anticipating their PO's law enforcement role. Therefore, at least initially, POs may need to overemphasize their social work role to balance their dual roles truly.
Furthermore, Skeem and colleagues (2007) conceive care as blended with fairness and trust as a separate but vital aspect of dual-role relationships. However, we find that care operates with collaboration and transparency to illicit client emotions such as feeling they could be honest with their PO, trust their PO and that their PO is fair. Moreover, Skeem and colleagues (2007) argue that collaboration is less central to dual-role relationships. However, they conceive collaboration as a client's willingness to work collaboratively with a PO. Our findings suggest that a crucial part of balancing POs' dual roles is an officer expressing a willingness to engage with their client collaboratively. Bordin (1979) notes that when developing TA with a fearful client, a therapist's behavior can be vital to inviting the frightened client into collaboration with them. In our study, care exhibited through small gestures, non-confrontational body language, and engagement that reinforces their role as a helper is an effective way to do so with the supervision of clients. Once accomplished, a PO's willingness to be fully transparent and collaborate with clients minimizes the power imbalance between the two parties. In fact, for some clients, collaboration has an empowering effect, with them feeling as if they have taken their power back.
Finally, Skeem and colleagues (2007) conclude that the control style is a key component of dual-role relationships. In their measurement of TA, the domain of "toughness" stresses a PO's indifference to probation clients' views and feelings and an expectation of compliance and subsequent punishment for unmet expectations. Interestingly, while Skeem and colleagues (2007) minimize the importance of collaboration in dual-role relationships, our findings show that collaboration initiated by the PO fits within their framework. For example, POs can collaborate with the client even when sanctioning the client by discussing sanctioning and showing leniency or in the immediate aftermath by being open to the client's perspective on supervision plans. Our findings show that doing so is an effective way to build TA with clients. This is important because POs cannot always avoid sanctioning or arresting their clients. However, our findings illustrate that POs who continue to exhibit care, collaboration, and transparency when exerting control over clients may be able to maintain or even enhance TA during conflict situations.
Previous research has noted that MI may be an especially useful tool for developing TA in community supervision (Clark et al., 2006; Armstrong et al., 2016; Harper & Hardy, 2000; McMurran, 2009). This effect is partly because MI puts officers into a therapeutic mindset (Clark et al., 2006). MI begins with a collaborative relationship between therapist and client. It operates through an acceptance and acknowledgment of the client's autonomy, belief in their ability to solve their problems, and compassion, which forefronts the welfare and interests of the client (Miller & Rollnick, 2012). As such, MI techniques are helpful tools in that they allow POs to navigate their everyday duties with a spirit of collaboration and belief in the client.
Our findings support the usefulness of MI for developing TA with clients. Clients in this sample report that MI techniques such as reflexive listening, active listening, and positive reinforcement show that their PO cares about them. Additionally, these techniques allow the client to feel like the PO hears them and values their point of view. Furthermore, our findings highlight the impact of engagement in the initial stages of developing TA. Within the MI framework, engagement occurs as the client and therapist begin to establish their relationship, allowing the therapist to provide information and advice to the client with permission (Armstrong et al., 2016). Clients report their PO successfully engaging with them through communication and action. Eng ging communication includes telling clients they care about their sobriety, want to support them, and positively reinforce the client. Eng ging action includes providing resources (i.e., transportation, housing), texting a client between regular visits to check in, and sharing personal details about their lives to connect with the client. Taken together, MI techniques reduce the imbalanced power dynamic that the law enforcement role introduces into the relationship. Using such techniques allows the officer to conduct their everyday business in a way that exhibits care and value toward their clients, strengthening their bond (Bordin, 1979).
Strong TA includes the agreement on goals and assignment of tasks (Johnson & Wright, 2002). An MI approach instills the belief that the client can identify these goals and tasks with the assistance of the PO. The PO and client accomplish this through a collaborative working relationship. Clients in this sample give positive reports of their officer expressing the desire to collaborate with them and following this up with action to reinforce the message. Specifically, the MI technique of giving voice seems to have positive effects on the development of TA. Clients in this sample prefer a supervision environment where they can express their displeasure with certain aspects of their supervision case plan without a feeling of interrogation when they explain to their PO what they were doing and advocate to receive resources. Notably, the positive effects of giving voice were not contingent on the client always getting the outcome they wanted. In line with research on procedural justice, hearing the client increases the likelihood that they will perceive the judicial process they are going through as fair (Tyler, 1997).
Although women and men primarily agree on the significant contributions to an effective officer-client relationship, there are a few nuanced gendered dimensions. While women and men desire a PO who cares, women in our sample tended to prefer the PO to play a mentor role. In this way, women desired to work with more personable POs who were willing to be open by sharing a bit about themselves to connect with them authentically; it is more about the relationship, which maps onto prior research highlighting women's focus on developing a productive working relationship (Bui & Morash, 2010; Smith & Ingel, in press). Roddy and colleagues (2019) highlight this nuanced preference by women, where close to 400 women clients desired support from POs to help them meet their goals but also wanted them to consider their other needs and challenges. To ensure this continues throughout the probation process, women expect consistency from their PO—just like any interpersonal relationship outside the community supervision context. Men prefer a PO that is distant enough for them to feel autonomy and close enough to feel they cared. Men tended to desire more regular communication with their POs outside of meetings. This built a deeper connection with them and showed men that their POs cared enough to go beyond their required role as authoritarian.
Another gendered dimension beyond the approach to caring for clients was women's and men's nuanced preferences regarding full transparency and mutual collaboration. For women, coupling a caring approach during transparent communication around expectations of probation made women feel less controlled and more aware. Conversely, men desired transparency from the PO to acquire a sense of autonomy in the probation process. The more transparent the process, the more informed men were of the boundaries they could work within, which allowed them to set attainable goals. Through collaborative work with the PO to achieve them, men clients had more positive experiences on probation.
Overall, women and men as individuals experiencing the probation process are not so different, but the present gendered dimensions between them highlight the importance of acknowledging their "situated knowledges" (Haraway, 1988). They expect and desire the basic tenets of a healthy working relationship. Yet they are cognizant of gendered nuances. A PO’s communication style is essential since the clients’ gender shapes their standpoints.
To ensure that probation clients have greater opportunities to form relationships that they perceive as helpful, focusing on the client experience may be beneficial instead of what the PO can do. This includes shifting the focus to what probation clients desire and attempting to match clients with POs that fit their communication style, specific needs, racial/ethnic background, and more. It would also be helpful to examine a gender-matched-pair sample of clients and POs to explore the salience of gender congruence for TA in officer-client relationships. This would offer a broader scope of perceptions on the officer-client relationship from both sides while still centering the clients' supervision preferences. Methodologically, there may be opportunities to develop survey scales that explicitly target clients' desires in relationships with their PO. Additionally, the development and validation of gendered needs scales to identify the differential needs of clients of all genders about desired PO roles and styles during probation could inform community corrections. Lastly, there is also a need to study more marginalized clients who may have specific desires regarding the officer-client relationship, such as LGBTQIA+ individuals, Native Americans, and individuals with physical and/or learning disabilities. Similarly, future qualitative research should explore clients' perspectives across intersecting identities, including race/ethnicity, religion, class, citizenship status, sexual orientation, able-bodiedness, and others.
Women and men clients on probation seeking to successfully reintegrate back into their communities and avoid future punishment benefit from PO support (Morash et al., 2015). This support is crucial to developing a TA and an effective officer-client relationship. Approaches to improving the officer-client relationship primarily focus on what POs are saying and doing instead of desired PO communication and actions by clients. With more research that comprehensively dissects the desired experience of clients on probation working with a PO that they view as fully backing their success, translating, and matching the desired client experience to solutions that POs and agencies can implement is possible. However, not overlooking the gendered dimensions between clients can allow the appropriate matching of clients to POs. If clients view their POs as playing other vital roles, such as mentors and accountability friends, then adequate attempts to match them with someone like them or with the unique skills to engage with them are more productive and sensitive to clients' diverse needs while on probation. Care, collaboration, and transparency are necessary ingredients for strong officer-client relationships built on honesty, trust, and fairness and, subsequently, for clients' success.
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CJ Appleton is a doctoral student in the Criminology, Law, and Society department at George Mason University. He currently works as a Graduate Research Assistant at the Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence! (ACE!) under the direction of Dr. Faye S. Taxman and Dr. Danielle S. Rudes. He previously earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology/Anthropology at Lewis & Clark College and his Master of Science in Sociology from Portland State University. He studies corrections and reentry issues, focusing on race, identity, and narratives.
Lindsay Smith is a doctoral student in the Criminology, Law, and Society department at George Mason University. She currently works as a Graduate Research Assistant at the Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence! (ACE!) under the direction of Dr. Faye S. Taxman and Dr. Danielle S. Rudes. She previously earned her Bachelor of Arts degrees in Psychology and Sociology from the University of Missouri and her Master of Arts in Criminology, Law, and Society from George Mason University. She studies correctional issues emphasizing reintegration success, gender-based violence, and sexual victimization.
Danielle S. Rudes, Ph.D., is a Professor of Criminal Justice & Criminology and the Deputy Director of the Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence (ACE!) at Sam Houston State University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine. Dr. Rudes is an expert qualitative researcher whose methods include ethnographic observation, interviews, and focus groups with over 19 years of experience working with corrections agencies at the federal, state, and local county levels, including prisons, jails, probation/parole agencies, and problem-solving courts. She is recognized for her work examining how social control organizations and their middle management and street-level workers understand, negotiate, and at times, resist change. Dr. Rudes' experience includes working with carceral and community corrections agencies during the adoption, adaptation, and implementation of various workplace practices and reforms, including contingency management (incentives/rewards/sanctions), risk-needs assessment instruments, and motivational interviewing.