Probation Simulation Project Offers Students Insight Into Justice System

Pensacola – According to the most recent figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1 in 52 adults, or 4.7 million people, are on probation in the United States. In the Pensacola area, that number is more than 8,000 people.

Two University of West Florida Criminal Justice professors, Dr. Andrew Denney and Dr. Natalie Goulette, are offering students in their Community Corrections course a chance to learn not only effective techniques for managing offender behavior, but a chance to explore probation from the other side.

In the Fall of 2013, Goulette began the Probation Simulation Project.

“I had this idea to put students on probation so they knew what offenders go through on a daily basis,” Goulette said. “I did several iterations of the project over several semesters and then Andrew and I started planning Spring 2016 to collaborate together.”

While Community Corrections is a standard lecture-based class, the project is a unique addition to reinforce in-class learning with real-world experience.

“For eight weeks out of the semester, students had to roleplay essentially,” Denney said. “For four weeks of the semester, they were a probation officer, and they had another student that was their probationer. And they switched roles at the end of four weeks, but they had the same partner for the entire semester.”

The students were given very realistic scenarios, developed with Escambia County and Federal Probation, to act out and then turn in weekly journals detailing their experiences.

“We’re hoping that they get a little taste of what it’s like to work in community corrections and be a probation officer and also a taste of what discretion is like – making that judgment on when your probationer violates,” Goulette said. “How do you handle that? Do you admonish them? Do you talk it out? How do you problem solve?”

The other side of the project offers students a glimpse into what someone on probation experiences every day.

“A lot of our students think probation is a walk in the park,” Goulette said. “Having to answer to someone on a weekly basis and also make a call into an office to say, ‘Hey, I remembered to make my call,’ and just get a taste of what it’s like to be supervised.”

Learning better communication was also a key component of the project, as was learning to empathize with those being supervised.

“One of the key words that came up time and time again when we were planning this was empathetic understanding,” Denney said. “That’s really where we were really wanting students to sit in both the shoes of both the probation officer and the probationer to get a feel for what they had to do, and we feel pretty comfortable that’s what came out of it.”

Goulette said the pair was surprised that though many students felt empathy for the probation officers, they were less empathetic towards those on probation – even after admitting they didn’t like the experience themselves.

“Students talked about having a difficult time managing that relationship with their probation officer – having to think about what they did for the entire week and divulging that information to literally a stranger,” she said. “But at the same time, not having that empathy towards probationers. They said, ‘I don’t like being supervised. I feel like I’m in my parents’ house again,’ but at the same time believing that probation was easy.”

The pair recently completed a content analysis of the student’s summary experience papers, which has been submitted for review to the Journal of Criminal Justice Education. Denney said students were often surprised by how difficult managing another person could be in practice.