Vincent Schiraldi, Commissioner, New York City Department of Probation

Interviews

Vincent Schiraldi, Commissioner, New York City Department of Probation

Vincent Schiraldi, Commissioner, New York City Department of Probation

Emily Gold of the Center for Court Innovation spoke with Vincent Schiraldi, commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation, who shared his views on leadership, agency culture, and bringing along the next generation of criminal justice leaders.

How would you describe yourself as a leader?
I certainly can’t prescribe what others should do. I’m the kind of person who is willing to get a little messy if the situation requires it. When I came in as the chief of the D.C. Department of Youth Services, we made a lot of changes—and took a lot of heat for it. But it needed to be done, so it was worth it.

Given that, do you think there’s an ideal tenure length for you within an agency?
In D.C., it was four years. I actually stayed five years, but that was one year too long. It really depends on the circumstances. In D.C., politics were at play. I was controversial, so when elections came around, there were safer political choices than me. Also, I think we had achieved a moment where it was perhaps better for stability to bring in a new guy to focus on maintenance. Here in New York, my tenure will depend on what we’ve achieved. If we get realignment—which would mean shifting some state rehabilitative responsibility for juveniles to the city and community level—there will be a whole host of really intense outside-the-box thinking that has to occur over a short period of time. I’m really good at that and would like to see that through.

Is it common for the chiefs and commissioners of criminal justice agencies to last only a few years?
The issue of short tenures is not atypical, and it’s not inconsequential. When I was a member of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators (a trade association for juvenile justice administrators), they tabulated the average tenure of the group’s members. For a while, it was just under two years. That’s incredibly short. I remember early on in my career, one of my mentors, Jerry Miller (who deinstitutionalized the juvenile justice system in the state of Massachusetts in the early 1970s), said, ‘If you look at the resumes of most juvenile correctional administrators, they include a long list of jurisdictions, with a few years in each place. And that’s going to happen to you. So use your time the way you want to because no matter how good you are, you won’t last.’ He was right.

How does that mentality affect the work you do day to day?
Most people, when they first get the job, the first thing they want to do is figure out how to keep the job. But my philosophy is, don’t bother with that; it’s not going to happen. Spend the time doing the best job you can so you can sleep well afterwards. Don’t get me wrong, I try to have some durability. I think the way you do that is to try to implement change that’s worth being interested in. My plan is to make something good happen here in New York City, so that when there’s the temptation to replace me or someone in my department, advocates will step up and say, ‘Wait, don’t do that. Something good is happening there.’ But I’m not trying to make improvements to keep my job; I’m trying to make improvements because they’re needed. If that results in me keeping my job, so be it.

How do you decide which are the battles worth fighting in making systemic changes?
For me, it’s been a combination of things. You have to take a tough stand on the issues that are important to you. You can’t fight every issue. You also have to distinguish the big from the small. If everything is big to you, then you’re at war all the time.

What amount of staff turnover is the right amount?
I think some level of staff turnover is healthy, especially among people at the top. In D.C., every supervisor at the Department of Youth Services was an at-will employee. That meant that when I became chief, I was able to replace the staff who would have thwarted reform—probably three-fourths of the leadership over the course of my five years there. I’m not blaming those folks; they were made crazy by the department’s historical lack of leadership. I was the twentieth director of the department in 19 years. In the year before I got there, there were four directors. Those circumstances were certainly no fault of the upper management, but they were so poisoned by that environment that I was never going to undo the harm. And so the ability to move a bunch of them was great. But there’s no singular rule. Here in New York, that level of upheaval isn’t necessary. It’s a much more stable place.

Is it possible for an agency to remain in a perpetual state of reform?
No, I think there need to be periods of stability. The challenge is stabilizing without becoming fixated on the status quo. That’s not easy.

Do you think probation departments are particularly vulnerable to political pressures?
Ironically, yes. Nobody knows what probation is, and it doesn’t exist on most mayors’ radar screens. And yet everybody knows something about criminal justice, so it’s easy to oust the current probation leader and send in a replacement. It makes a huge difference if your elected officials truly care about reforming their justice systems. I have been fortunate to have three good mayors to work for who truly get what is required to make lasting change.

How do you think the field can help cultivate the next generation of criminal justice leaders?
One thing I’ve been focusing on is starting to populate the field with younger people of color who are gaining the right experience to become the boss one day. That’s part of what I enjoy about bringing people in from the non-profit sector. It’s hard to get from there to my office without some kind of intervention. If I can provide that step—taking a small leap of faith—then I have people who really think differently. I’ve done that twice. The result is individuals who know good practice and are interested in something more than just small, incremental change. And those qualities will one day make them good candidates for my job.

Have you noticed a different mentality among staff who come from non-government sectors?
For people new to government who came in from the outside, it’s difficult to overstate to them how long it takes for things to happen in a public agency. So when you want something to happen, you have to be an animal about it. You have to start turning the ship way before you have any right to do so. And that’s scary. We can’t discuss it until it’s perfect. If you only attempt incremental change, you’re dead and gone before you get to see any significant movement. That’s why evidence-based practices are so seductive; they feel like an off-the-shelf solution. That can feel like the safest choice, considering that many leaders are coming in at the end of a crisis where the last guy went down in flames.

Are colleges and universities successfully creating future leaders?
There’s discussion on that issue among leaders and foundations. We really need to focus on that. I’m very happy that Jeremy Travis is running John Jay College. It sets up an enormous potential for good things to happen. Other fields have figured it out, but I think the criminal justice field has some more work to do.

How do you define success in the work you do?
A 10 percent change is a good start. If I can keep somebody from going to prison and it doesn’t reduce recidivism at all, even that’s not bad and might be a good investment of public dollars. In addition to looking at recidivism, my office has been tracking additional metrics that help round out the picture of the outcomes we’re achieving. Over the past two years, we reduced the number of revocation requests by 40 percent. We quintupled the number of early discharges. And we substantially increased the number of young people’s cases that we adjusted out the front end. So if you just did those things and nothing else, you’d expect recidivism to go up because we kept the most serious clients and got rid of the less serious ones. But we’ve actually seen a slight reduction in the re-arrest rate of our clients. It’s exciting to add those three things together: fewer arrests, fewer people locked up, and less unnecessary intervention in people’s lives who were doing well. Other measures I’d like to pay attention to as we begin working within the community are education, workforce development, and community connectedness. I believe that reintegrating people into their home communities matters. I hope we’ll be able to show through research that the probationers who received the community-based model did better than the ones who didn’t.

How do you prepare the public for what they can reasonably expect of new interventions?
You have to be scrupulously and brutally honest with people. It works so much better than the alternative. When I want to start something new, I say, ‘I think these are good ideas. They intuitively seem right and there’s some evidence that makes me believe that they’re going to work. Not all of them are “evidence-based practices” yet, and I may be wrong. But if I am, I’ll come tell you and we’ll try something else.’ You can’t reform with perfection. But you can have relative confidence in your game plan if you’ve consulted the right experts beforehand.

Do you think we’re in a particularly innovative era of criminal justice reform?
I think the circumstances allow us to be more reflective now. There was a time, starting with Reagan’s declaration of the War on Drugs and the Willie Horton ads, when criminal justice was the beginning and end for elected officials. If you weren’t tough on crime, it was a non-starter. But we can have a different conversation now—and we are. The recent drop in crime has helped everyone take a breath and be a little more rational. Also, new research about the failure of the institution-based model for juveniles has been a huge help in stimulating discussion and demanding alternatives. The adult side is starting to catch up. 

How do you hardwire an agency to be innovative?
I think it requires spending a lot of time with your staff. Go into their offices and ask them what they do and what their issues are. When I first got here, I carved out time to hold listening sessions with front-line staff. When the sessions reveal an issue that needs addressing, we form improvement teams that touch every level of the organizational chart. This ensures that the problem-solving process is happening agency-wide.

Would you describe your agency as risk-averse?
Yes, it used to be. Probation officers told me during the listening tours that when a case was a close call, they should just violate people and recommend incarceration, even for minor or technical violations. I’ve tried to change that. If someone needs to be revoked, that should be the recommendation. But if not, do what you need to do. Follow up with that individual. Don’t just tell him to ‘go forth and sin no more.’ When I started this job, I asked my staff how many of them had Googled me. Lots raised their hands. I said then they should know that I don’t throw my staff under the bus. Ever. I will back you unless you don’t do your follow-up, and even then, that conversation will happen behind closed doors. I won’t publicly humiliate you. 

What other strategies have you used to convince your staff that it’s safe to make mistakes?
We have monthly data-driven meetings where staff present one adult case and one juvenile case. These meetings used to be very stressful for staff. Now, we give out awards, something that hadn’t happened in a decade. All of this helps staff work up the guts to make a suggestion of how to improve things. Now that the data-driven meetings feel safer for staff to be honest, we have also started discussing cases that didn’t achieve the best results. Recently, someone presented a poignant domestic violence case where the guy beat up his girlfriend several times before being put on probation. Long story short, the guy ends up being charged with murdering his girlfriend. So we talked about what they could have done differently, if anything. It’s amazing to me that my staff felt gutsy enough to share that case.

What advice would you give to your successor?
Know where you want to go, and don’t pull your punches just because you want to stick around. It’s not easy to do. It feels fantastic when you get a job like this. Everyone pats you on the back and calls you the commissioner. They plaster your name all over the building, etc. That’s not a feeling you want to go away, and for people who have been working their way up their whole lives, they don’t want to see it all go down the drain. You get real conservative, real quickly. So, quoting Shakespeare, my advice would be: ‘To thine own self be true.’

September 2011

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