Across the country, community corrections agencies – probation and parole – have a great responsibility: helping justice-involved individuals improve their lives. Improving the lives of others is no easy task. New research and models of doing community supervision suggest staff can best help individuals when they use evidence-based interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy or when they focus on the strengths of justice-involved individuals.

However, the transactional skills needed to deliver interventions are different than the transformative skills needed to lead community corrections agencies. When staff promote into leadership roles, they tend to focus on the transactional aspects of their role – hiring staff, reviewing data, and building more efficient processes. Community corrections leaders rarely receive training related to their leadership style. Nor do they receive training on how to build learning environments, how to encourage staff to evolve their work, or how to develop agency culture. There is no industry-led training on how leaders can create environments where staff can do their best work.

In response, the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) in collaboration with Justice System Partners (JSP) is reimagining leadership training to do just that. Together, NIC and JSP built the Community Supervision Leadership Learning Lab (CSLLL) to help community corrections leaders rethink the organizational infrastructure and culture of their agencies to improve the delivery of services.

Reimagining Leadership Training for an Evolving Community Supervision

Challenges to Current Training

As the field of probation evolves with new science and new ways of thinking, probation leaders must evolve, too. This evolution requires intentional and innovative training. In 2018, US corporate and government agencies spent, on average, $50 billion building and sending individuals to leadership training, and experts believe 94% of organizations will continue to invest into some type of leadership training.

However, leadership training too often uses a one-size-fits-all approach. These trainings mostly use an instructor-led lecture style format and seldom offer other mediums to learn the information (e.g., discussion, written, visual, activity-based). They rarely, if ever, think about how adult learners learn best or personalize the learning experience.

Training experts also cite that training curricula hardly ever asks participants to apply the material in real world situations. If there is an expectation of applying the lessons from the training, participants rarely receive feedback. These issues with run-of-the-mill training means few participants remember the information or use it in their role. A 24×7 Learning survey found only 12% of survey respondents apply the skills from training they received to their job and a McKinsey survey found only 25% of respondents believe training improved their performance.

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging in Training

For the new models of probation to work well, staff must feel emotionally safe at work. For Black, Latiné, and Indigenous probation staff, emotional safety at work is complex. Across the country, racially minoritized individuals experience far worse probation outcomes – these individuals are more likely to receive violations and return to jail, even for minor rule violations. Racially minoritized POs, who must follow strict zero-tolerance punitive policies, knowingly contribute to this disparity and understand how following policy worsens impacts to their own community groups. For many of these staff, there is a dual loyalty between their racial community groups and their professional identity. However, probation leaders rarely acknowledge this complexity for staff. And, more often, ask staff to ignore what connects them to people on probation.

These new models of probation disagree and believe a sense of community is the foundation of a better probation. The new models encourage staff to lean into who they are, rather than ignore it. Yet, there is no training intentionally designed to help probation leaders acknowledge this complexity for their diverse workforce, take a diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) lens to their own leadership, and create safe spaces for all staff. Dr. Brian Lovins, JSP president and previous Assistant Director to Harris County, Texas Community Supervision and Corrections Department– the fourth largest probation agency in the US,

“For staff to do their best work, they have to feel their best. And, to feel their best we must work more intentionally to create an inclusive culture. We are battling a long history of probation agencies not being inclusive spaces for all staff. We can’t expect probation leaders to know how to do this overnight. The first step is intentionally creating space for leaders.”

The challenges to leadership trainings broadly: lack of various formats for learning, limited application to real-world settings, absent feedback of application of skills, and few resources related to workplace equity, are even more present in the probation industry. Kevin Kuehmeier, JSP Senior Associate and CSLLL instructor, “I worked as a probation officer, supervisor, and trainer for nearly 25 years. The training we’re talking about needing, it doesn’t yet exist for probation.”

NIC’s Community Supervision Leadership Learning Lab

Building the CSLLL

The National Institute of Corrections (NIC), inspired by the need for evolution, funded JSP to re-design an existing blended executive leadership curriculum built by NIC in 2012. Over the past four years, NIC and JSP have worked collectively to re-design the executive leadership curriculum into the Community Supervision Leadership Learning Lab (CSLLL). The goal of the redesigned curriculum is to challenge leaders to rethink the organizational infrastructure and culture of their agencies to allow staff to do their best work and deliver services more effectively.

JSP Senior Associates who led the redesign, Dr. Tameka V. Williams and Gabriella Priest Celestin, relied on multi-disciplinary evidence and practices from business, healthcare, education, and sociology to build the new training. Williams, when reflecting on her approach to transforming the curriculum offers, “If you want to empower staff, they need to know who you are. The new training teaches leaders how to lead authentically and bring authenticity out in their staff. That was our starting point.”

The new CSLLL is a 9-month training program delivered in two phases and designed for people from different leadership positions – from direct supervisors to executive staff. Importantly, cross-leadership participation allows staff who may rarely interact the opportunity to have intentional conversations about leadership and culture.

NIC launched the CSLLL August 2022 with 62-leaders from Brazoria County Texas Community Supervision and Corrections Department, Michigan Department of Corrections, and Kansas Parole Services.

A leader from Michigan reflected, “If you have ever questioned the need to change the antiquated process and policies of an aging [probation] system, CSLLL is the opportunity to create a new map for success for both the people who occupy our spaces and people who enter into our spaces.”

Leadership Learning Lab: Phase One, Learning Modules

Phase one includes six months of learning modules where leaders gather for live virtual learning sessions but also work on applying what they’re learning immediately between modules. The monthly modules include the topics: (1) learning about leadership: exploring our role; (2) leading with purpose; (3) creating a diverse, equitable, inclusive-belonging (DEI-B) environment where staff can do their best work; (4) creating a learning environment; (5) effective implementation; and (6) communication strategies.

Each of the six modules includes two virtual-led two-hour learning sessions where leaders meet to discuss the topic and participate in various activities related to the topic – such as journaling, discussions, polls, drawing, and games. JSP staff Williams and Priest-Celestin built each session to be as interactive as possible and informed by how best to engage adult-based learners. Importantly, throughout modules there are intentional conversations about race and equity in leadership and how to identify inequity and exclusion in the workplace.

At the end of the first live two-hour session, JSP facilitators ask leaders to apply the lessons learned to a self-paced practical assignment related to the module’s topic. These practical assignments include leaders engaging and asking staff in their organization how they want to receive appreciation, how they best receive support, and inventorying what staff identify as their own strengths. Then, leaders come back for a second virtual session where they reflect on the results of their practical assignment and discuss how they can use the data to inform their own leadership. Five JSP staff including Williams, Priest-Celestin, and Kuehmeier and JSP Research Associate Kosean Kokeh and Senior Associate Rachel Goldstein all lead various modules during Phase one.

Leadership Learning Lab: Phase Two, Capstone Projects

At the end of the six months of learning modules, leaders must work together to identify a change strategy they would like to implement to improve their organization’s culture. During these final three months, JSP facilitators continue to offer ongoing support to the leaders and regular check-ins. At the end of the three months, leaders from each of the organizations come together in-person to share what they implemented and the impact of those solutions on their staff and agency culture.

Representatives from each of the sites gather in Chicago, IL in August 2023 to present their capstone project. Top Picture: Representatives from Michigan Department of Corrections; Middle Picture: Representatives from Brazoria County Texas Community Supervision, and; Bottom Picture: Representatives from Kansas Parole Services.

For example, leaders from Kansas Parole Services recognized the need to bolster how they acknowledge and appreciate staff. In response, they developed a comprehensive infrastructure to celebrate staff and piloted the infrastructure across four offices. Leaders first developed and sent out a survey to get to know staff. This included understanding who they are as people, what parts of their work they’d like to see recognized, and how they’d like their agency to acknowledge their work. Informed by this survey, leaders implemented a shout out wall dedicated to highlighting specific contributions or progress by staff, “Making a Difference” awards, and standing agenda items of intentional appreciation during meetings led by supervisors. A leader from Kansas Parole Services reflects on their team’s capstone project, “I have learned to be more positive and patient with my staff. I have taken away ideas from Leading with Purpose. Also working on a capstone project to celebrate staff has been rewarding.”

Williams, “This lab is a lot of work for participants. It is a serious commitment. But, the CSLLL isn’t just about imparting knowledge. The CSLLL is about driving real-work impact and changing culture. That takes work. The commitment of leaders to the CSLLL is the first way leaders show their staff they are committed to being a more thoughtful leader. It’s a way to show their staff they are committed to transforming their organization’s culture.”

The Lasting Impact of CSLLL and the Evolution of Training in Community Supervision

New models for community corrections require organizations to adopt growth mindsets, believe that people can change, and leverage their own personal styles of supervision to help people under supervision. However, community corrections staff cannot do this in workplaces where they cannot be themselves.

Williams, “When we as leaders see our staff being their authentic selves and having success with people under supervision by being themselves, we have to elevate it. We have to celebrate it. That’s how we create a safe culture celebrating our differences. And, that’s how we create a culture where staff are effective.”

For the future of community supervision, NIC’s CSLLL is an unprecedented training for both criminal justice leaders broadly, and community supervision specifically. It sets new standards of what training can and should look like with a specific emphasis on building learning organizations. A leader from Brazoria County reflected, “I appreciated the [training emphasis] on a growth mindset. It really made me think about my own skills and if I’m really doing all that I can to encourage employees to grow.”

Importantly, JSP built an infrastructure of measurement measuring the Lab’s effectiveness. Williams, “Across industries, training developers rarely measure the effectiveness of their own training. Training is about teaching the evolution of ideas, but then there’s rarely an infrastructure to evolve the training itself. That’s another way NIC’s Leadership Lab is different. We’ve built ways to measure its effectiveness and use that data to inform new iterations of the training.”

The success of the Community Supervision Leadership Learning Lab continues with a new cohort of community supervision leaders selected by the National Institute of Corrections. This new cohort includes North Dakota Corrections and Rehabilitation, Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and three sites from the US Probation and Pretrial Services – Alaska District, District of New Hampshire, and Northern District of Illinois. These sites include both federal and state agencies, a mix of supervising individuals in both urban and rural spaces, and a diversity of people under supervision including indigenous populations.

JSP and NIC believe the new cohort will test the leadership curriculum in new ways and offer a unique opportunity to inform future iterations of the training.

Lovins, “We’re in real time building evidence about how best to build training for probation staff. We must be willing to learn from sites while they learn from us. We’re building the CSLLL for leaders of today. And, with the infrastructure to evolve the training, a CSLLL for the leaders of tomorrow. That’s how we do community supervision better. That’s how we invest in different.”

Interested in the next evolution of NIC’s Community Supervision Leadership Learning Lab? Get connected with NIC and stay updated on how to join the next cohort of Lab Leaders.







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