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date: 25 March 2023

Probation Officers, Discretion, and Participatory Managementfree

Probation Officers, Discretion, and Participatory Managementfree

  • Lynnea Davis, Lynnea DavisDepartment of Criminology, Law and Society, George Mason University
  • P. J. HoustonP. J. HoustonDepartment of Criminology, Law and Society, George Mason University
  •  and Danielle S. RudesDanielle S. RudesDepartment of Criminology, Law and Society, George Mason University


Probation officers (POs) are perhaps the correctional workers with the greatest reach, since more people are under probation supervision relative to every other correctional branch (i.e., jail, prison, and parole). The individuals under probation supervision and the community-at-large depend on POs to do their job well. However, POs have a job that requires them to make numerous decisions within an organization with conflicting goals and ambiguous roles, often with great discretionary power and little oversight. This relatively autonomous discretionary power often produces racial disparities in probation outcomes, the misuse of evidence-based tools such as risk and needs assessments, and ultimately the inability of probation organizations to effectuate change. These effects have negative consequences for probation organizations, probationers, and POs themselves.

Participatory management produces an organizing framework that calls for hierarchical organizations to take a balanced approach to decision-making by increasing information sharing throughout the organizational hierarchy. This organizational structure carries the potential to remedy these aforementioned problems. By increasing oversight and accountability for POs via participatory management, POs’ discretionary power may be managed without limiting decision-making. Participatory management may create additional benefits such as increasing the efficiency of probation organizations, improving client outcomes for probationers, and increasing occupational satisfaction for POs. There are numerous potential threats to participatory management and several solutions for overcoming them. The main solution calls on probation agencies to make participatory management as effective as possible by constructing an equal balance between a loosely and tightly coupled organizational implementation of policies and practices.


  • Corrections
  • Policing


Probation officers (POs) play a critical role in the criminal justice system. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, probation accounts for over 50% of the total correctional population (Maruschak & Minton, 2020). This means more than half of the individuals under correctional supervision in the United States are currently on probation. As such, POs arguably possess the greatest capacity for influence relative to other correctional workers. Additionally, much of the responsibility for the rehabilitative success of probationers and the safety of the community falls on POs. Given POs’ reach into the criminal justice system and the community, criminological researchers examine POs’ decision-making responsibilities, discretion, and adoption/implementation of programs and practices (e.g., Jones & Kerbs, 2007; Lurigio & Carroll, 1985; Schaefer & Williamson, 2018; Viglione et al., 2015).

The aim of this article is to introduce the reader to some of the issues associated with broad PO discretion and unsupervised decision-making and the benefits of participatory management in probation organizations. The authors discuss how unsupervised PO decision-making is harmful to probation organizations, POs, and probationers. To remedy this challenge, we offer the organizational practice of participatory management as a way to maintain POs’ decision-making opportunities, but with increased oversight. This article demonstrates how participatory management provides a potential solution to the problems produced by unchecked discretionary power in probation organizations. For us to make this argument, it is necessary to explain why unchecked discretionary power is problematic. As such, we begin with an explanation of PO decision-making and discretionary power.

Introduction to PO Decision-Making and Discretion

Research and practice reveal the many decisions POs make and the wide discretion POs have in making those decisions. Juvenile probation officers (JPOs) exercise similar broad decision-making power and wide discretion. Both POs and JPOs make decisions regularly about how to manage their cases, such as how to structure sessions with clients, what to require of clients, and when to drug test clients or conduct home searches. They also make decisions about what services to refer clients to and how to implement programs and practices adopted by their agency. In addition, they make sentencing recommendations for their clients to the court. POs and JPOs have wide discretion and often little oversight when it comes to making these decisions (Maguire & Katz, 2002; Manning, 1997). (Note: For the remainder of the article, the term POs is used to refer to both adult and juvenile probation officers, unless we are discussing specific research.)

Discretion is the freedom to decide what should be done in a particular situation. Within criminology, Klockars (1985) developed a more specific definition of discretion for police officers and other agencies that is easily extends to other criminal justice workers, such as POs: “A police officer or police agency may be said to exercise discretion whenever effective limits on his, her, or its power leave the officer or agency free to make choices among possible courses of action or inaction” (Klockars, 1985, p. 93). POs are often free to make choices among possible courses of action or inaction. For instance, POs regularly have discretion to determine when it is or is not appropriate to move forward with new charges when probationers violate the terms of their probation. They also have discretion in determining to the frequency of drug tests and home visits. Furthermore, they exercise discretion when making decisions about whether to recommend harsh sentences or more lenient ones. POs even have discretion in determining whether to implement every aspect of a program or practice, and sometimes, whether to implement something at all. Some decisions have more limited discretion, such as a simple “yes” or “no” response to charging a probationer for a technical violation (although much thought likely goes into this decision). Other decisions involve more complex discretion, such as program implementation and sentencing recommendations, when the options are nuanced and numerous.

Complicators of PO Decision-Making

PO discretionary decision-making is complicated by conflicting, ambiguous PO responsibilities, misaligned goals, and a diverse array of approaches to carrying out responsibilities and reaching goals.

Polarized Roles and Misaligned Goals

Both Purkiss and colleagues (2003) and Burton and colleagues (1992) noted that POs are simultaneously enforcers of punitive action and rehabilitators for probationers. Specifically, POs are expected to act as law enforcers, to supervise and monitor probationers, and to investigate new offenses. They also act as mentors, counselors, family therapists, and more (Corbett, 1999). Given the polarity of these responsibilities, POs experience organizational confusion in defining and carrying out their roles. Burton et al. (1992) found there is little consensus within state legal codes about POs’ primary duties. In Burton et al.’s (1992) study, 43 states identified supervision as POs’ main role, 33 states identified investigating cases of existing probationers as one of the main roles, and only four states identified rehabilitation as the main role of POs. Regardless of legal codes on POs’ roles, the PO job requires balancing multiple roles and tasks that often conflict with one another. As such, POs are highly vulnerable to role conflict stemming from being tasked with both rehabilitating probationers and ensuring the community’s safety (Mulvey & Iselin, 2008; Rudes et al., 2011; Ward & Kupchik, 2010). Moreover, the experience of role conflict and ambiguity may affect the success of policy implementation (Kras et al., 2017). Given the ambiguity of and conflict in their roles, POs heavily rely on their discretionary power when making decisions. For instance, POs may rely on their own professional experiences and opinions to inform their decisions rather than evidence-based practices (Shook & Sarri, 2007).

Role ambiguity for POs is often caused by the probation organization. Undefined roles and conflicting goals often lead to POs to pick and choose which organizational roles and goals to prioritize, thus increasing their discretion and decreasing organizational unity. Shook and Sarri (2007) studied how well JPOs and other justice officials followed structured decision-making. The study outlined that POs often have multiple responsibilities including intake, processing, and supervision (Shook & Sarri, 2007). Most POs in this study followed their own discretion instead of the recommendations of decision-making instruments.

Further research has provided evidence that a PO’s years of experience is somewhat related to their application of discretion. The ambiguity of PO roles leaves them with few coping mechanisms to effectively achieve organizational goals. Over time, POs learn how to best use their discretion to address their many and complex responsibilities. This suggests newer POs may have less uniformity in discretionary decisions compared to more experienced POs. Lurigio and Carroll (1985) identified this phenomenon by assessing the schemata produced by POs based on their years of experience. Lurigio and Carroll (1985) found that POs with longer-term experience produced more complex schemata than novice POs, which represents a key issue: When POs consistently encounter multiple unstructured and complex roles, they solidify personal processes to achieve organizational goals. When these processes occur for many years with broad discretion, it becomes more difficult for POs to alter their methods to match the organization’s interests, particularly during periods of organizational change.

Multiple Approaches to Roles and Goals

In addition to ambiguity in roles and goals, there is also ambiguity among POs about how to carry out these roles and meet personal and organizational goals. For example, if a PO’s primary goal is protection of the community from future crime, that PO may try to accomplish that by helping probationers to successfully rehabilitate and desist from crime by engaging them in programming, counseling, or treatment. Alternatively, the PO may do so by being especially punitive, formally charging probationers for every technical violation and recommending harsh sentences to keep the probationer out of the community. While these two courses of action could not be more different, POs may choose them in pursuit of the same goal. This may help explain POs’ differential treatment of probationers, which we discuss in the next section.

PO Discretionary Decision-Making, Problematic Outcomes

If left unaddressed, complicators of PO decision-making and broad PO discretion may contribute to POs’ differential treatment of probationers or their misuse of evidence-based tools, and may exacerbate their lack of accountability and oversight.

Differential Treatment of Probationers

The discretionary power of POs may quickly become problematic if biases, whether implicit or explicit, influence their chosen courses of action or inaction. Prior literature documents disparities in decisions made by POs. Perhaps most simply, research finds POs’ attitudes influence their decisions about sentencing recommendations (Katz, 1982). Vidal and Skeem (2007) found that, among other things, POs make decisions based on how they expect a probationer to do. Thus, POs enforce especially strict rules for psychopathic youth because they expect these youth to have poor outcomes (Vidal & Skeem, 2007). In addition, research demonstrates PO malleability. For instance, a recent study found the way behavioral health practitioners frame probationer reports influences how JPOs perceive probationers, as well as the subsequent recommendations they make to the court (Gale-Bentz et al., 2019). In other words, JPOs perceive and respond to the exact same client behaviors differently, depending on the presentation of that information.

Additionally, PO discretion, at times, produces racial disparities. For example, a study by Bridges and Steen (1998) revealed JPOs tended to recommend harsher sentences for African American youth relative to comparable White youth because they perceived African American and White youths differently. The JPOs attributed the African American youths’ delinquency to more static, internal forces, like personality and attitudes, and attributed the White youths’ delinquency to unfixed, external forces, like environmental stressors. These attributions shaped POs’ perceptions about future offending risk and influenced their sentencing recommendations; JPOs recommended harsher sentences for African American probationers (Bridges & Steen, 1998). This is an example of POs treating probationers differently (albeit discriminatorily and unmerited) but in pursuit of the same goal, which was to avoid future offending (Bridges & Steen, 1998).

Moreover, Steinmetz and Henderson (2016) found probation outcome decision makers (likely POs and judges, although this was not specified in the article) were less likely to grant racial minorities and women early discharge, controlling for risk level, offense type, and other factors. Essentially, this means women and racial minorities have a lower likelihood of their probation sentence being reduced. While the decision for early discharge is likely not left entirely to POs, they certainly inform the decision. Similarly, Rodriguez and Webb (2007) found POs are the most significant players in revocation decisions, and Hispanic/Latino probationers are more likely to have their probation revoked for technical violations compared to White probationers. The preceding examples of POs’ differential treatment of probationers demonstrate how broad discretionary power may produce unmerited disparities in probationer outcomes.

Misuse of Evidence-Based Tools

Extensive PO discretion may also contribute to POs’ misuse of organizational practices. Since 2010, probation organizations have experienced palpable changes. Perhaps most notably, there is a nationwide trend among probation organizations to shift from the traditional punitive focus to a more rehabilitative one (Miller & Palmer, 2020). Unfortunately for probation organizations and probationers, broad PO discretion inhibits this shift. Studies have revealed that when POs have broad discretion they may purposely misuse and disregard new organizational practices like the Risk Needs Responsivity tool (RNR) and Risk and Needs Assessments (RNAs; Haqanee et al., 2015; Miller & Palmer, 2020; Viglione et al., 2015). Similarly, POs may override the recommendations of structural decision-making (Shook & Sarri, 2007).

With the shift to more rehabilitative orientations in probation, many probation agencies adopted and implemented RNRs/RNAs. These tools provide agencies with standardized, evidence-based ways to assess and subsequently address clients’ risks and needs. Once POs assess risks and needs using the RNR or RNA tools, they should use that information to develop case management plans for their clients and to refer them to treatment if needed. Supervisors often require POs to conduct these assessments, but PO discretion allows for some unseen or unanticipated refusal. Vincent et al. (2012) provided an example of this phenomenon. The researchers conducted interviews and surveys with JPOs to assess how their daily actions with probationers changed after the implementation of the RNA. The results suggest that extensive policy changes had little to no effect on JPOs’ behavior. Instead, JPOs largely continued implementing the same practices used before the introduction of the RNA (Vincent et al., 2012). A similar study produced by Haqanee et al. (2015) supports those findings. In that study, the researchers used semistructured interviews to examine PO attitudes and frequency of use regarding the RNR model. Their findings confirm that POs ignored the RNR and used their own experience for decision-making concerning the assignment of clients to supervision levels (Haqanee et al., 2015). Likewise, a recently published study by Miller and Palmer (2020) indicates POs engage in a discretionary form of decision-making that extends outside the recommendations of the RNR tool. These reported instances of PO resistance against new organizational practices represent some of the consequences of broad PO discretion. POs’ disregard for and misuse of RNR and RNA tools inhibits organizational change by making it impossible for probation organizations to successfully adopt and fully implement these evidence-based tools.

PO Lack of Accountability and Oversight

A lack of accountability and oversight exists in many probation agencies and contributes to the preceding examples of POs’ intentional misuse of tools and of disparities produced by POs. A lack of accountability and oversight in POs’ use of RNAs is evident in the study conducted by Viglione et al. (2015). The researchers found the RNA was only utilized as intended in 1 out of 69 observations. Nearly all POs simply conducted the RNA and essentially checked off a box that they had done it. They did not then use the completed RNA to make decisions about how to address client needs. Instead, they emphasized risk over needs, which further supports the idea that PO discretion inhibits the shift from punitive to rehabilitative probation orientations. The PO practice of conducting the RNA but not using it to inform case plans or treatment referrals was the norm throughout the agency (Viglione et al., 2015). This suggests that either no one was holding the POs accountable to fully implement the tool or no one cared whether it was being implemented completely, as long as the box was checked.

Given the lack of accountability and oversight common in probation agencies, they are typically characterized as loosely coupled (McCorkle & Crank, 1996). According to Karl Weick (1976), loosely coupled organizations are organizations lacking functional coordination, regulations, and prompt feedback. Essentially, loosely coupled organizations lack coordination and accountability (Maguire & Katz, 2002; Manning, 1997; McCorkle & Crank, 1996). In addition, Bishop et al. (2010) found that at loosely coupled criminal justice stages, internal consistency in decisions is frequently absent. Because probation agencies are typically loosely coupled, POs’ daily activities are thus loosely coupled to organizational policies and goals. As a result, POs are mostly unaffected by policy changes within their agencies (McCorkle & Crank, 1996), which helps us to understand their failure to fully implement RNR and RNA tools.

Participatory Management

While wide discretion among POs has negative consequences, discretionary decision-making is vital to probation work and cannot (and should not) simply be eliminated. In fact, PO participation in decision-making may improve organizational efficiency by increasing POs’ job satisfaction and reducing role conflict and burnout (Whitehead, 1987). Moreover, eliminating PO discretion would likely result in stricter and more punitive treatment for all probationers. Thus, rather than probation agencies minimizing POs’ opportunities for decision-making, we argue that probation agencies would benefit from employing a participatory management framework.

Participatory management refers to a balanced approach to the way decisions are made in hierarchical organizations by increasing information sharing throughout the organizational hierarchy as well as the decision-making power of line workers (Wagner, 1994). It offers a potential organizational solution to various organizational problems experienced by POs that may influence their discretion (Simmons et al., 1997). One way participatory management may be understood is that it creates more tightly coupled organizations. In contrast to loosely coupled organizations, supervisors and management staff in tightly coupled organizations coordinate the activities of line staff, provide oversight and feedback regularly, and correct errors swiftly. Loosely coupled organizations are characterized by more autonomous line staff and lack thorough coordination and correction. The adoption of participatory management in probation agencies could potentially remedy this by increasing accountability and oversight from POs’ supervisors without reducing POs’ workplace decision-making opportunities. This would ensure POs’ activities and decisions are more tightly coupled to organizational goals and policies. In addition, participatory management effectively enhances internal consistency in decision-making. Furthermore, supervisors’ increased accountability and oversight of POs could help ensure that POs are not producing unwarranted disparities.

Support for Participatory Management in Probation Agencies

Extant literature on participatory management in probation agencies yields promising results. For example, Slate et al. (2003), find POs’ perceptions of participatory management were significantly related to job satisfaction (positive relationship) and total stress (inverse relationship). Moreover, participatory management increases PO efficiency (Kerbs et al., 2009). Work-related stress, low job satisfaction, burnout, and high turnover rates are common problems in probation agencies (e.g., Blankenship & Slate, 2016; Salyers et al., 2015; Simmons et al., 1997; Whitehead, 1987), and they affect individual PO efficiency, as well as the efficiency of the organization as a whole (Kerbs et al., 2009). Participatory management enhances efficiency by facilitating greater information sharing, accountability, feedback, and so on between POs and their superiors. For instance, the use of participatory management may help ensure that POs are not simply doing the bare minimum required of them to check off a box, as in the case of RNA/RNRs, which is obviously not efficient. Participatory management requires POs to report back to their supervisors on the results of the RNA/RNR and how they plan to prioritize and address their clients’ needs. Similarly, participatory management may give probation agencies greater capacity to ensure POs are not treating probationers disparately. This may be accomplished by having POs share information with their supervisors related to probationer characteristics and how they are managing each case. Even more, supervisors may regularly talk with POs about potential stereotypes and assumptions that may influence their decision-making and provide feedback and correction if needed. Given the positive effects of participatory management demonstrated thus far in research on POs, we suggest probation agencies should cultivate participatory atmospheres (Dir et al., 2019).

Other Benefits of Participatory Management

In addition to organizational benefits, participatory management also provides immense benefits for the POs themselves. POs often report high rates of stress, employee burnout, and job dissatisfaction (Blankenship, & Slate, 2016; Lee et al., 2009; Salyers et al., 2015). These negative effects stem from long hours, low wages, and overwhelming caseloads (Lee et al., 2009). Many researchers use participatory management to address this issue, and their results have revealed participatory management as a mediator that decreases PO stress and job turnover (Blankenship & Slate, 2016; Lee et al., 2009; Salyers et al., 2015).

Stressors are relatively common throughout POs’ daily routines. These stressors become even more troublesome for the PO and the probation organization when there is no clear remedy. Salyers et al. (2015) conducted research examining stressors reported by JPOs and management of that stress. A quarter of the JPOs reported burnout in their work, and the majority indicated they did not have methods to reduce burnout (Salyers et al., 2015). The highest reported method of handling stress was using vacation time. POs subject to these conditions cannot be optimally effective in their roles. Participatory management may be used in these organizations to benefit the PO, the probationers, and the organization itself. Blankenship and Slate (2016) examined the relationship between stress and turnover for state and federal POs. The researchers administered a survey that measured aspects of the PO job compared with job satisfaction on a Likert scale. The analysis suggests participatory management positively associates with increased job satisfaction and PO retention (Blankenship, & Slate, 2016). A similar survey design was produced by Lee et al. (2009) studying PO stress and job satisfaction in three states. Again, increases in participatory management was associated with decreases in PO turnover (Lee et al., 2009), which likely enhanced organizational efficiency. The decrease in POs’ stress levels demonstrated in these studies is associated with the reduction of role ambiguity and the introduction of role clarity through participatory management. Given these findings, probation agencies should utilize participatory management because it may remedy the following: PO role and goal ambiguity, the gap in PO alignment with organizational policies, PO stress, burnout, job dissatisfaction, turnover, and disparities produced by PO decision-making. Collectively, participatory management may enhance organizational and PO efficiency, as well as client outcomes.

Threats to Participatory Management

Unfortunately, implementing participatory management in probation agencies may not be an easy feat. For one, participatory management may be met with resistance, especially initially. As illustrated earlier, POs tend to resist or inhibit organizational change. One might presume that POs would not be pleased to suddenly be met with increased oversight and accountability. For that reason, it is important to precede the introduction of participatory management in probation agencies with an explanation or workshop on its benefits, why it is being introduced, and to create an agency atmosphere and culture supportive of participatory management. Probation supervisors and managers should make clear to POs that participatory management will not reduce their opportunities for decision-making, and it is not meant to criticize or punish them. Rather, participatory management benefits POs and the organization as a whole by providing a mechanism for continual improvement and to produce better outcomes. Additionally, participatory management requires supervisors and management to take an active role in enforcing accountability and regularly providing line staff with feedback. This may require these workers to do more than they are used to doing, which again may be met with resistance. Therefore, it is important for probation agencies to cultivate atmospheres accepting of and conducive to participatory management before implementing it.

Furthermore, organizational structure may be an obstacle to participatory management. Specifically, bureaucratic structures pose a major threat to the successful implementation of participatory management. In hierarchically structured probation agencies, PO-structured decision-making may be hindered. The analysis by Kerbs et al. (2009) identified this issue. Interestingly, the larger probation organizations included in the study were the most likely to have a strong, bureaucratic structure that limited PO decision-making (Kerbs et al., 2009). Such bureaucratically designed organizations may be thought of as highly tightly coupled (organizations characterized by strict coordination, regulation, and rigidity; the opposite of loosely coupled organizations). Essentially, these POs had stricter guidelines to follow for carrying out their roles, coupled with less discretion on how to accomplish organizational goals. The study did not examine the effects of this organizational structure on PO behavior, but this hyperregulated approach to PO decision-making may lead to increased PO stress, burnout, and turnover. Probation agencies need to strike the right balance between being loosely coupled versus tightly coupled organizations for participatory management to work effectively. Participatory management will not work if probation agencies are so tightly coupled that POs have virtually no real decision-making power. On the other hand, participatory management may require loosely coupled organizations to tighten up a bit by demanding more supervisory accountability and feedback. This further expresses the importance of assessing the organization, especially its structure, when deciding where and how to implement participatory management in a way that is beneficial to all.

Future Directions; Probation and Beyond

Many recent studies focus on structured decision-making techniques, and although they do not explicitly state participatory management, they contain aspects of it (Bosker, 2015; Labrecque & Viglione, 2021; Viglione et al., 2020). A few studies demonstrate promising results in terms of recidivism. One example is a new approach called staff training aimed at reducing rearrest (STARR). This growing body of literature examines the structure of PO–probationer interactions and trains POs to engage with probationers in ways that may elicit reductions in criminal behavior (Labrecque & Viglione, 2021). The studies involve implementing multiday trainings for POs to teach them how to incorporate the STARR techniques into probationer interactions. While using STARR techniques, POs are paired with supervisors who coach them, answer their questions and concerns, and evaluate their use of STARR techniques while interacting with probationers. The findings have revealed significant reductions in recidivism, including one study that found probationers whose POs used STARR techniques were 40% less likely to have their probation revoked compared to the control group (Labrecque & Viglione, 2021). Viglione et al. (2020) demonstrated that POs using STARR have positive perceptions of it. They reported that over 80% of POs in one probation organization in the Middle District of Florida reported positive impacts of STARR, such as helping POs build rapport with probationers and assisting POs in navigating their dual role (Viglione et al., 2020). STARR represents a new and potentially effective structured decision-making technique, with aspects of participatory management such as oversight and coaching, for reducing probationer recidivism and increasing the overall effectiveness of probation organizations. More research on STARR is needed, ideally in the form of randomized control trials with greater geographic representation, to determine its effectiveness.

To our knowledge, there are no international studies that explicitly examine participatory management in probation settings. However, various international studies have evaluated the usefulness of structured decision-making in probation organizations. For instance, Bosker and Witteman (2016) examined decision-making in Dutch probation organizations and concluded that structuring decision-making may improve the quality of Dutch probation practice. Similarly, Blay and Boxstaens (2017) compared various probation practices and models in Spain and Belgium, including structured decision-making strategies, and discussed the benefits of supervising and providing support to POs, suggesting that participatory management would be useful in those contexts. In addition, a comparison study of Canadian juvenile probationers found that probationers who received structured case plans that were informed by a structured risk assessment (the Structured Assessment of Violence Risk in Youth) were more likely to have case plans addressing their highest needs compared to probationers who received a nonvalidated local tool and unstructured case plan (Viljoen et al., 2019). Furthermore, Oliver (2002) proposed a structured decision-making model of probation in South Africa. While these studies show that structured decision-making has been and may be successfully utilized in various non-U.S. probation settings, there is a lack of international probation research that specifically examines participatory management. Future research should evaluate participatory management models of probation in countries other than the United States. Additionally, international studies of participatory management in other criminal justice organizations like the police and courts are also needed.

The benefits of participatory management permeate throughout the criminal justice system. Other organizations, such as police and specialized treatment courts, facilitate structured decision-making as an occupational aid to front-line workers. These organizational actors have similar positions in their organizational hierarchy as POs. In fact, research on participatory management in other criminal justice organizations finds many of the same positive outcomes found in probation organization research. An early study completed by Silverman & O’Connell (1999) revealed evidence of these benefits in the New York City Police Department (NYPD). During the time of the study, the NYPD had received public praise for a sharp decrease in crime. The study explored possible explanations for this phenomenon. One of the contributing variables associated with decreased crime was an organizational shift of increased decision-making for officers that was supported by managerial oversight and accountability (Silverman & O’Connell, 1999). These factors of participatory management created tight coupling of the NYPD’s organizational goals. Increased officer decision-making also led to the creation of problem-solving approaches such as strategic narcotics units, gun units, and school programs for drug prevention (Silverman & O’Connell, 1999). This study, among others, supports the conclusion that participatory management may lead to higher rates of organizational efficiency.

Unfortunately, positive effects are not the only outcome of decision-making in other criminal justice organizations. The perceived issues of unstructured, broad discretion often appear in these organizations too. Drug treatment courts, which often consist of POs, attorneys, a prosecutor, and a judge, may sometimes acquire the issues of unsupervised discretion. A study by Baker (2013) examined decision-making in a drug treatment court in the southwestern United States. The researcher found drug court case managers, like POs, had broad discretion in determining how to treat drug court participants (Baker, 2013). Case managers sometimes used this broad discretion in ways that negatively impacted the drug court participants. For instance, case managers would sometimes label certain participants “untreatable,” which could have unstudied negative effects on the court outcomes (Baker, 2013). Additionally, this broad discretion often led to case managers’ perceptions of having increased control over the court outcomes, which was often misguided. Instead, the judges contained total authority over outcomes concerning the drug court participants (Baker, 2013). This led to frequent organizational conflict between the drug court case manager and the judges. The normalcy of conflict in this drug court was exacerbated by the broad discretion wielded by the case managers. This only represents one example of studies examining negative effects of broad discretion in other criminal justice organizations. We reiterate here that structured participatory management may be a viable solution to this issue and may be used across different organizations of the criminal justice system. However, it is important to note that the success of participatory management in one criminal justice organization may not necessarily allude to its success in other criminal justice organizations. Further research is needed to assess the effects of participatory management on various criminal justice organizations.


This article presents an argument for why participatory management should be utilized in probations agencies (and perhaps in other criminal justice organizations). POs make myriad decisions amid role conflict and goal ambiguity and rely primarily on their own discretion to do so. Their wide discretionary power regularly results in negative outcomes such as racial disparities and the misuse of tools like RNAs. We argue that part of the reason for these negative outcomes is the POs’ lack of accountability and supervision over their discretionary decisions. This is especially problematic because it inhibits organizational change as well as the success of probationers. Fortunately, participatory management is a promising solution to these problems. Participatory management strengthens information sharing throughout organizations and facilitates decision-making opportunities that are met with accountability, which may be especially helpful in loosely coupled organizations like probation agencies. Therefore, it may help minimize the negative consequences of unchecked discretionary decision-making. However, probation organizations should cultivate atmospheres conducive to participatory management before adopting it, or it may not be effective.

Further Reading


  • Bishop, D. M., Leiber, M., & Johnson, J. (2010). Contexts of decision making in the juvenile justice system: An organizational approach to understanding minority overrepresentation. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 8(3), 213–233.
  • Blankenship, C., & Slate, R. (2016). Factors influencing federal and state probation officer turnover intention. Corrections, 1(4), 293–319.
  • Blay, E., & Boxstaens, J. (2017). Professional practices and skills in first interviews: A comparative perspective on probation practice in Spain and Belgium. In P. Ugwudike, P. Raynor, & J. Annison (Eds.), Evidence-based skills in criminal justice (pp. 127–156). Policy Press.
  • Bosker, J. (2015). Linking theory and practice in probation: Structured decision support for case management plans. Radboud University Nijmegen.
  • Bosker, J., & Witteman, C. (2016). Finding the right focus: Improving the link between risk/needs assessment and case management in probation. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 22(2), 221–233.
  • Bridges, G. S., & Steen, S. (1998). Racial disparities in official assessments of juvenile offenders: Attributional stereotypes as mediating mechanisms. American Sociological Review, 63(4), 554–570.
  • Burton, V., Latessa, E., & Barker, T. (1992). The role of probation officers: An examination of statutory requirements. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 8(4), 273–282.
  • Corbett, R. (1999). Juvenile probation on the eve of the next millennium. Federal Probation, 63(2), 78–87.
  • Dir, A. L., Saldana, L., Chapman, J. E., & Aalsma, M. C. (2019). Burnout and mental health stigma among juvenile probation officers: The moderating effect of participatory atmosphere. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, 46(2), 167–174.
  • Gale-Bentz, E., Goldstein, N. E., Cole, L. M., & Durham, K. (2019). Impact of community-based provider reports on juvenile probation officers’ recommendations: Effects of positive and negative framing on decision making. Law and Human Behavior, 43(2), 193–204.
  • Haqanee, Z., Peterson-Badali, M., & Skilling, T. (2015). Making “what works” work: Examining probation officers’ experiences addressing the criminogenic needs of juvenile offenders. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 54(1), 37–59.
  • Jones, M., & Kerbs, J. J. (2007). Probation and parole officers and discretionary decision-making: Responses to technical and criminal violations. Federal Probation, 31, 35–42.
  • Katz, J. (1982). The attitudes and decisions of probation officers. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 9(4), 455–475.
  • Kerbs, J., Jones, M., & Jolley, J. (2009). Discretionary decision making by probation and parole officers: The role of extralegal variables as predictors of responses to technical violations. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 25(4), 424–441.
  • Klockars, C. B. (1985). The idea of police. SAGE.
  • Kras, K. R., Rudes, D. S., & Taxman, F. S. (2017). Managing up and down: Community corrections middle managers’ role conflict and ambiguity during organizational change. Journal of Crime and Justice, 40(2), 173–187.
  • Lee, W.-J., Joo, H.-J., & Johnson, W. W. (2009). The effect of participatory management on internal stress, overall job satisfaction, and turnover intention among federal probation officers. Federal Probation, 73(1), 33–40.
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