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Does corrections need volunteers?

Today, millions of Americans willingly give their time and energy to volunteer for various agencies and causes. As with many social institutions, corrections' needs have grown in recent years while funding sources have shrunk. Tapping into people's interest in volunteering is one response to this problem.

How large is the reservoir of volunteer talent? Quite substantial. In 1989, a Gallup Poll estimated 98.4 million Americans volunteered an average of four hours a week. Between 1987 and 1989 the number of adult volunteers increased by 23 percent, suggesting a bright future for volunteerism.

The use of volunteer services in criminal justice settings, including corrections, has been uneven at best. Exact numbers are not available, but it is generally thought that justice volunteerism began and grew in the United States in the late 19th Century before declining between 1920 and 1950. From the late 1950s through the 1970s, volunteer services in the courts and corrections grew rapidly. During the 1980s, justice volunteerism did not keep pace with the newfound volunteer spirit resurging throughout America. The use of volunteers in criminal justice settings is still the exception rather than the rule.

Although it is estimated that the criminal justice system draws less than one half of I percent of the available volunteer pool in America, the 1990s seem to be a decade of increased justice volunteerism. Educated projections suggest justice volunteers are playing an important role in revitalizing America's criminal justice system. Establishing links between community volunteers and offenders is an ongoing challenge for correctional administrators.

Two Extremes

Some administrators may wonder whether volunteer services really are needed in corrections. The answer to this question lies somewhere in the middle of two polarized views that have characterized volunteer services development in corrections. Neither of these extremes will help build the necessary links between paid and nonpaid staff, nor will they ever lead to the fullest possible use of human resources.

On one side is the view that volunteers simply are not needed in corrections. In this view, volunteers are considered unwelcome guests who lack necessary training, threaten job security and create added work. Their services are seen as nice but not necessary to achieve organizational goals. Because volunteers are not paid, staff pay little attention to their views and rarely seek their opinions. They are tolerated but closely controlled.

On the other side is an equally extreme viewpoint. Many people outside corrections have a distorted outlook on corrections and an exaggerated view of what volunteers can accomplish in the correctional setting. They have little understanding of the need for correctional policies, rules and regulations that serve to protect the public.

Rather, they view corrections as a failed system incapable of providing even basic human services. They see volunteer services as the only salvation for a system gone awry. This unbridled view of volunteer services is seen as a return to basics, unfettered by professional or bureaucratic control.

The tension between these two polarized views remains strong today, although it has diminished somewhat in recent years. Most professional staff and volunteers have learned that aligning themselves with either extreme means operating in an atmosphere of distrust and minimizing the important contributions each can make.

A Changing Role

The essence of justice volunteerism--people helping people--remains the same, but the forms it takes has changed to meet new needs. Justice volunteers serve a variety of clients--crime victims, inmates, probationers and parolees, at-risk youths, physically and sexually abused children, and offenders requiring specialized services. In addition to supplementing professional services, justice volunteers are taking on new roles. For example, volunteers now are active in administration, research, education and fund-raising and serve on advisory boards.

Voluntary participation is the cornerstone of democracy, and it is critical to corrections. Without the diversity of services and viewpoints volunteers provide, corrections agencies and facilities would have a more difficult time operating and would function in a lonelier atmosphere.

Without citizen involvement, corrections can become insulated from the public. Similarly, excluding volunteers allows citizens to disengage themselves from their civic responsibilities. Contributing to the public's lack of involvement is the surest way to create apathy and misunderstanding about corrections.

Voluntary participation is a catalyst for change. Accommodating this change by reaching out to harness the available talent, and developing better ways for volunteers and professional staff to work together as partners will be a major challenge for corrections in the years ahead.

Bill Winter is executive directional of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. The Institute provides more than 150 continuing education workshops, seminars and conferences each year to professional staff and volunteers working in criminal justice systems.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Winter, Bill
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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