‘Accountability in the community’ — probation officers advocate for higher wages

United Probation Officers Association President Davalnie Powell. Photo courtesy of UPOA.

United Probation Officers Association President Davalnie Powell. Photo courtesy of UPOA.

Dalvanie Powell encounters a persistent problem as she leads more than 800 New York City probation officers in a fight for higher pay: Many people don’t know exactly what a probation officer does. Or what distinguishes them from parole officers.

Powell is the president of the United Probation Officers Association (UPOA). She is the first African American to lead the union, whose members are mostly women and people of color.

“Probation officers are an alternative to incarceration,” Powell said. “We save the city and state hundreds of thousands of dollars by keeping people out of the prison system.”

Parole officers, on the other hand, work with individuals after they have been released from jail or prison. They also earn more than probation officers, who start off making $42,759 per year; supervisors earn $57,042. Each of the city’s probation officer has a college degree.

The common confusion about probation and parole officer responsibilities has hindered the public understanding of the probation officer, a role that has expanded thanks to criminal justice reforms that emphasize decarceration, Powell said.

“I don’t want to see anyone come into the criminal justice system, but let’s be realistic there has to be some kind of accountability,” said Powell, who has worked as a probation officer since 1987, the year she graduated from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Accountability while you remain in the community, that’s my new motto.”

The role of probation officers has also expanded since the city and state implemented Raise the Age reforms that move the majority of cases against people under age 17 out of Criminal Court and into Family Court. Probation officers handle intake for children arrested in New York City. Supervision probation officers often work with young people who are convicted of a crime but not sentenced to jail.

More than 200 probation officers work out of an office on Queens Boulevard, near the Criminal Courthouse.

In September, the UPOA sued the city to demand detailed salary information for city employees in other agencies with comparable requirements. In December, the UPOA again sued the city, this time alleging that the city blocks promotional opportunities for probation officers, preventing them from earning higher wages commensurate with supervisory roles.

Despite the struggle for higher wages, Powell said she values the job, even though it wasn’t her initial career track.

“I wasn’t trying to be a probation officer. My intention was to be a lawyer,” she said, but her college advisers sent her resume to the Department of Probation and the agency got in touch. “I’ve been here for 32 years and I love it. I love the spiritual gratification because it sure wasn’t for the money.”

Working with children in Family Court provides a unique understanding about why people end up in Criminal Court as adults, she said. She and other probation officers try to intervene to prevent that from happening.

“We do our due diligence to make sure kids get the right services,” including family coaches and supervision plans, she said. “We provide them with the tools to be successful while holding them accountable.”

“Are you always successful in the time period you have? No, you may not see it right away but we have had many people come back and say ‘Thank you,’” she said.

“When you change the mindset of a person coming through the door, you save a life,” she said.