When the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners approved Erika Preuitt as the full-time director of the Department of Community Justice last week, it was in recognition not only of her 11 months of service as an interim director, but also of a distinguished career in corrections and community advocacy.
Preuitt began as a probation and parole officer more than two decades ago with Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice Gang Unit, later becoming the director of the department’s Adult Services division. Two years ago she became the first African American woman to act as president of the American Probation and Parole Association, which serves 45,000 community corrections professionals nationally. She currently sits on the organization’s executive committee of past presidents.
Preuitt sat down with The Skanner to talk about her role overseeing the 600-person department, and to discuss how she believes the role of PO has changed for the better over the course of her career.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
The Skanner News: As a former parole and probation officer, what insight do you bring to your new position?
Erika Preuitt: One of the things that I think is really important to note is that we stand on the foundation that we believe that people can change their behavior. And I think the unique perspective I bring from coming to the department starting as a parole and probation officer working with justice-involved women and gang members, is really understanding the power of stating that we believe people can change, because I’ve seen people be able to change their behavior.
The unique perspective I bring is not only witnessing people changing their behavior, but really understanding the practices we engage in, and how they've evolved over literally the last 26 years. When I was a PO, we didn't have the tools we do today to do this work, and to be able to understand our history gives me a really clear vision for our future. And that future really is about, how do we continue to connect with youth and adults that are on our caseload, to help those to be able to take a critical look at their behavior, and look at those ways they can turn their behavior to be more positive?
I look at it from the perspective that we are about public safety, but our public safety impact really is a long-term impact. Because when we help a person change their life, and help them to restore their family, we help our communities grow stronger. So it’s really a multiplying effect.
TSN: How have the tools for POs changed since you began your career?
EP: When I was a parole and probation officer, we did not have the evidence-based practices that we have right now. And so as I was coming through our organization and through my career, I’ve been able to see our profession shift and change.
I came in as a PO, and I was given a file cabinet of probably about 100 cases, and I was given some training on de-escalation, and I had a really experienced field training officer. But I wasn’t given specific tools about how to engage the person I was sitting in the office with. The focus was on monitoring and compliance, and it was more a role of referee. And now we have tools enabling our staff to really engage in case management in a more structured way with consistent tools that we’ve trained all of our parole and probation officers to know, with consistent booster training that ensures they understand those tools and are applying them correctly. It moves us from being a referee to more of a coach.
Our case management model is EPICS: Effective Practices in Community Supervision, created by Dr. Edward Latessa of the University of Cincinnati. We started engaging in training our staff to learn that model about seven years ago, and now that is the way that we do business. When I was a PO I didn't have a case management model like that, so being able to have come through our department and seeing our evolution and seeing how it's strengthened our programs, and had an impact on our outcome, has been really powerful.
TSN: How do you intend to emphasize trauma-informed care in your department?
EP: That is the next phase for us, asking: What does that look like for our clients, who come into our offices oftentimes in fight or flight because of the lifestyle they’re living? We're really talking about how we can give officers the tools they need to be able to work with people coming into their offices that are having some significant traumas.
I was responsible for working on a Smart Supervision grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance that enabled us to work with a psychiatrist, Alisha Moreland-Capuia, to focus on innovation and really address issues related to trauma-informed care, cultural competency, and brain development.
There was a smaller group of POs and one juvenile court counselor who were able to work with Dr. Moreland-Capuia. They focused on the age group of clients 18 to 25 years old, and it was about really understanding how the brain works, and getting knowledge of tools they could use to be able to help people that were coming into their office that might not be in their space to do our case management model. They learned how to learn where (individuals) were at emotionally and mentally and cognitively, they also got tools to be able to get people so they were able to be in this space and do the work their case plan.
Having that grant has allowed our staff to engage in those practices for the last three years, and now we’re in the process of expanding that work in our department to make sure we’re able to fan those tools to other teams. What we learned from the POs is their level of job satisfaction increased.
Dr. Moreland-Capuia, myself, and one of our POs were at the Harvard Kennedy School in June, and we were able to present to the Federal Judicial Conference and talk about our work. It was just amazing -- on one slide, one of our POs was doing mindfulness exercises with their person in their office, just to get them in the space and calm down to be able to work on their case plan, and do the work they needed to to move forward in their supervision.
To me those are the most humane things to do. We’re dealing with humans who are coming into our office, and we have to acknowledge where they're at emotionally mentally and physically before we can begin to talk about accountability.