Flinn-Brown Fellow Sarah Douthit strives to improve criminal-justice system as county chief probation officer

June 10, 2020

By Matt Ellsworth

Flinn-Brown Fellow Sarah Douthit (2013) is the chief probation officer for the Coconino County Adult Probation Department in Flagstaff. She has held a variety of positions in the criminal justice system in Arizona, including with Adult Parole, Adult Probations, and the Arizona Supreme Court. She is also an active member of the American Probation and Parole Association and has held several leadership positions in the organization. She is passionate about improving the criminal-justice system and is dedicated to servant leadership in Arizona to promote successful outcomes and healthy communities. After moving to Arizona in 1997, Douthit received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Arizona State University and a master’s degree in education from Northern Arizona University.

Through Flinn Foundation support for the Creative Communities program of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, your office received funding for a mural project that helps promote healthy relationships within the community. Please tell us a little about the program and why you believe it is important to foster a sense of philanthropic service in the community you serve?

Through the Creative Communities program, we were able to fund an initiative to inspire our community and clients to use art to think about what promotes and creates healthy relationships in the community. Over the course of two years, we worked with our clients and many community stakeholders to develop a visual representation of healthy relationships. The project resulted in client-created murals which are on display at our main office in Flagstaff. The grant allowed us to focus on the creative strengths of our clients to have a positive impact on the community. We often have probation clients with art skills, but lack access to materials, training, and a platform for prosocial expression. We are delighted with the response of the clients and community as we continue to promote art as a means for community health and healing.

Can you please describe your work as chief probation officer?

I serve as the chief probation officer for the Coconino County Adult Probation Department. In my role, I oversee probation services for the county. For the large part, probation officers serve two primary roles: providing information to the courts related to people accused of a crime and providing supervision in the community for people who have been granted a term of probation. Probation is typically granted as an alternative to incarceration where individuals are ordered to comply with a series of conditions, with an expectation that their behavior will change for the better. My officers assist individuals to develop a plan for interventions targeted at the most significant barriers in their lives. We refer people to services, maintain contact with clients and their families, and guide them to better future decision-making. We aspire toward a future of healthy communities and reduced recidivism. Our vision statement is: Building relationships and enhancing lives to create a safer community.

How does public policy impact how you manage your operation?

Historically, the criminal-justice system has been reactionary. Public opinion regarding a single case or situation can drive legislation and policy. Many of these past decisions have led to the serious issues of mass incarceration and mass supervision that we are grappling with today. Over the years, many in our field have begun relying more heavily on the 40 years of research we now have. A growing body of literature tells us that incarceration is not the best way to keep us safe.

As such, criminal-justice professionals have an obligation to provide education to stakeholders and policymakers. We know far more today about the influence of social determinants of health, childhood trauma, mental health, addiction, and systemic disparity than ever before. There are many advocates for criminal-justice reform. While I agree that improvements are needed in the system, the issues we encounter seldom begin with an arrest. Many times, the criminal-justice system serves as the most expensive social service of last resort. The vast majority of those that walk through our doors have lengthy stories of systemic failures—failures of the familial structure, education, communities, health systems, behavioral health. The list goes on. While these failures certainly do not excuse criminal behavior, they do help explain the patterns of mental-health issues, addiction, and behavioral problems our clients encounter. It is more fitting to say that we need societal or civilization reform. We cannot punish or incarcerate our way out of our current situation. Mass imprisonment is the most expensive way to not solve our crime problems.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work?

The negative impacts of COVID-19 are well-documented and discussed, so I will not list them all here. Like every other human experiencing this pandemic, we are all uniquely impacted by human tragedy. I will note, however, it has made some of our existing issues in the criminal-justice system even more conspicuous. There are systemic service gaps that have widened in this pandemic. While I applaud many of our providers and community partners for transitioning to online services so quickly, we do have many homeless and phoneless that are now more disenfranchised than ever before. Our business relies heavily on rapport and human connection. The virus has challenged every element of our profession and we are working diligently to address these issues. 

Further, the fiscal impact of the situation is still unclear. Arizona probation departments rely heavily on fees paid by probationers. This population is often the least able to pay court-ordered obligations. Only time will tell how the pandemic will impact revenue needed to continue operations. We are currently holding many positions vacant to prepare for a possible recession. Sadly, our profession is no stranger to budget cuts, as we have never fully recovered from the Great Recession. We continue to innovate and create efficiencies, but our services have taken a hit. Unfortunately, history shows us when probation services are cut, prison costs increase.

On the optimistic side, however, there are some lessons we can take away that can improve service delivery and governmental programs. Through technology advancements, much of our office work can be done remotely. The next steps for us include reviewing new technology practices that may allow us to reduce our physical office footprint, while promoting a flexible workplace which appeals to many employees.

How has the Flinn-Brown Network been useful to you?

The Flinn-Brown Network is an incredible resource. I have access to subject-matter experts of all kinds that I would never have met if it wasn’t for the Network. Additionally, there is a sense of camaraderie and friendship that has developed over the years that I attribute to the connection of the Network. Participation in Flinn-Brown was life-changing for me, and I appreciate the access to such amazing people.