Part 3: Probation Officers Influence Clients by Giving Them Support and Resources

Published: December 18, 2019

 Some might say a probation officer’s role is to monitor former inmates and send them back to prison when they have done something wrong.

Federal Probation Officer and FHN parent Amy Higgins takes a different approach with her clients.

“Some people who get out of prison look at the probation system as adversarial, like someone who’s going to be checking up on you and trying to get you in trouble and trying to get you sent back to prison, and that’s not what we do,” Higgins said.

Higgins has worked as a federal probation officer for 20 years after discovering her interest for the criminal justice system through a job as a secretary at a psychologist’s office in college.  

The Missouri Federal Probation System of Eastern Missouri is in charge of 2,100 former inmates in the St. Louis area. Probation officers are in charge of helping their clients become successful and productive members of the community by monitoring them and connecting them to opportunities around the St. Louis area.

The Thomas F. Eagleton Courthouse stands tall on South 10th Street in St. Louis. The building houses the federal probation offices for the Eastern District of Missouri. (Photo by Emily Hood)

Those on probation are typically under supervision for three to five years. They are required to maintain employment and notify their officers when they change residency or travel outside of the Eastern Missouri District.

“I always tell people, you know, you never have to come back to prison or come back to the probation office,” Assistant Deputy Chief Probation Officer of Eastern Missouri Jo Cooper said. “One time is enough. We don’t need repeat clients here.”

Probation officers help their clients find employment through partnerships with local businesses and apprenticeship programs. The Second Chance Act, passed by Congress in 2008, allows their office to provide funds to aid in buying clothes for a job, providing a deposit for rent, or paying for job training to aid in the job application process.

“I won’t say it’s easy,” Higgins said. “It’s not. We realize that’s a challenge. One of the things we always ask them is, ‘What’s their dream job?’ Sometimes, people think that what they really would like to do with their life is outside of their reach because they’re a convicted felon. Sometimes it’s not.”

Once clients have found a stable job and are able to start earning income, officers can even help clients buy their own homes through a program called Project Home. Inmates are able to attend classes to learn more about the home buying process, healing bad credit and finding low cost loans with no down payment.

“It’s amazing to see the pride on their face when we take a picture of them in front of their first home, getting the keys to their house,” Higgins said.

While seeing a client succeed after their supervision can be extremely rewarding for the probation officers of Eastern Missouri, the job brings its hardships to those who work within its field. Officers look to support each other to help better serve their clients in overcoming their difficulties.

“It’s not a normal thing to talk with someone and they pass away that day, or the next day,” Cooper said. “You’re the last person they talked to. Or, you [might] really work hard with someone and they just never seem to get it. We check on each other to make sure we’re doing okay.”

Higgins wants her clients to be successful with her help through the system so they can return to spending time with their families in their homes.

“The piece of advice I would give would be to trust your probation officer, to partner with your probation officer, to allow us to help you, because that’s what we’re there for,” Higgins said.

Click here to read Part 4.

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