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Julie Baptista, Napa County’s new Chief Probation Officer, has spent 25 years working in the world of probation, helping both youth and adults who have broken the law turn their lives around.
She has seen her share of success stories, as well as tougher outcomes for some probationers. But, through it all, Baptista has genuinely enjoyed her career that now involves running a Probation Department of 130 staff, including probation officers, group counselors, and support personnel.
“I love my job,” she said from her office at Juvenile Hall, located just off Walnut Street.
Baptista officially took over Probation on February 8, following the retirement of longtime CPO Mary Butler, who retired after 37 years with the County. Baptista, who served as Butler’s chief deputy, admitted she has some pretty big shoes to fill.
“Mary has built a great department, and I’m grateful to have been a part of that,” she said. “I plan to continue with our current vision and mission, and I know we can continue to do great things here.”
During Butler’s tenure, Probation went through a sea change in methodology, both locally and around California. Gone were the days of just re-arresting probationers if they broke the law again, believing a punitive approach would get criminals to change their ways.
“Research shows that doesn’t work by itself,” said Baptista, who began her career in the 1990s when punishment was still the focus. “There certainly are people who need to be in custody to keep the community safe. But we also don’t want to make people worse by doing just that.”
As a probation officer and later as a supervisor and manager, Baptista saw how Butler brought in a newer approach called Evidence Based Practices that gave more attention to changing behaviors by providing services—drug treatment, mental health, and others—to probationers who wanted to avoid more jail time.
It also required probation officers to take a different tact with their clients. In earlier times, an officer would sit someone down and start lecturing about where they went wrong and what they needed to do to change. “You can imagine how well that went over,” said Baptista.
Nowadays, probation officers employ assessment tools and methods such as motivational interviewing, where they talk with—not down to—their clients. This method allows an officer to gauge where someone is at that point in their life, and how willing they are to change.
“It’s important to always treat people with respect,” Baptista said. “You can still hold them accountable. But, if you’re fair and respectful, then people respond to that.”
“It’s a balancing act. A good probation officer isn’t good at just one thing. A good probation officer can balance rehabilitation and accountability,” according to Baptista.
The key is getting a probationer to listen to their probation officer, and hopefully plant a seed in them that down the road will result in a new approach to their lives. It usually doesn’t happen overnight.
“It can require 100-300 hours of cognitive thinking activities before they start to think differently,” Baptista said.
As a probation officer, Baptista managed a caseload of youth offenders. Some were in Juvenile Hall, others attended continuation schools. “You see kids who come from really tough backgrounds who didn’t have the privileges or experiences we take for granted while growing up.”
She gave one example to show why it can take so long for someone to shift their thinking.
“When I was a brand new PO I worked with a youth named Matt who was 16, and I tried to explain to him about the dangers of drugs,” Baptista recalled. “And he said to me: ‘Julie, you don’t get it. When I woke up this morning and I saw my dad was passed out on the kitchen table with a needle in his arm, that meant it was going to be a good day for me because I wasn’t going to get my ass kicked.”
Baptista noted, “That’s a whole different reality from mine. For this kid, heroin is good because when his dad drinks [alcohol], he gets violent and beats his son. But when his dad shoots heroin, it means Matt will be safe that day because there won’t be any beating.”
Some of her former clients over the years have reached out to let her know that they’ve turned their lives around. For one client she mentioned, it took almost 15 years for them to get clean and sober.
“It’s always great to hear that,” she said. “It also makes me happy for them because you see how hard life is for them, and now life is a little easier because they’ve made some changes.”
In addition to anecdotal examples of success, there are statistics that show the newer method of working with probationers is working.
“Ten years ago we had about 800 kids on juvenile probation,” Baptista said. “Now, it is less than 200. The Juvenile Hall average daily population is about 15 kids.”
Baptista’s career in Probation also has had its disappointments, even tragedies. “One of the things I didn’t expect when I first started out was the number of funerals of young people I would go to.”
Sometimes, it’s a suicide, or a stabbing in prison. One incident from long ago still stays with Baptista.
A car full of teenagers crashed into a slough near Rio Vista. Five of them drowned. Three of the five were kids Baptista had worked with, “and one of them I had talked to just the night before the accident.”
“You want to help change lives for the better, but you can’t always do that,” she admitted.
But Baptista, and the probation officers and group counselors she now oversees, never stop trying. “We don’t give up on them,” she said, “because you never know what will happen as a result of our good work."