How Criminal Justice Professionals Should Handle Administration Changes
By Dr. Ron Wallace, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, at American Military University
The United States now has a new president and many local, state and federal agencies have started to see new administrators and directors take office. While old timers in the field of criminal justice have lived through administrative transitions many times, some newer criminal justice practitioners might feel a bit apprehensive about their professional future, especially if a dramatic change occurs at the top of their organization.
It is impossible to predict with absolute certainty how a change in administration will affect individuals working in law enforcement, the courts, corrections, or elsewhere in the criminal justice field. However, history can provide us with some general indications of what criminal justice professionals can expect.
Potential Impact Depends upon Hierarchy
Early in my criminal justice career while working at the North Carolina Department of Corrections, a colleague of mine was demoted from a high-level position. He told me, “the higher in the tree you are, the harder it is to hold on when the winds of change start blowing.” Over the years, I have found a lot of truth in that statement. While no one is immune to changes caused by a new administration, it does appear that employees higher up in an organization are the most at risk.
When new leaders are elected, it is only natural for them to want subordinates who not only share their professional goals, but who will also demonstrate loyalty in top management positions. New leaders will want to surround themselves with individuals they know and have come to trust over the years.
As a result, it is not uncommon for a new administration to replace existing top management executives. These positions are often “at will” in nature, meaning the officeholders are subject to removal at any time for any reason, including the personal preferences of the newly elected administration. So the chances of employees remaining in these positions are often quite low, especially if there has been a change in political parties.
There are several potential effects that might result from a change of administration. Some of these effects, such as employment security, are felt immediately after the new administration takes office. However, other changes, such as organizational restructuring and policy positions, often take time to roll down through agencies.
In mid-management positions, the risk of job loss decreases but the effects of a new administration might still be felt. Quite often, individuals in mid-level positions have been with their agency for an extended period of time. That might give them some form of vesting, which means if they have been employed for a certain number of years their employment is typically protected. Their risk of being laid off is greatly reduced, but organizational restructuring could result in a change of duties.
Line officials who work directly with the public and offenders, such as law enforcement officers, correctional officers and probation officers, are perhaps the least affected in terms of job security following a change of administration. Unless there is an across-the-board reduction in staff, individuals performing the day-to-day tasks are not typically affected by an administration change.
The restructuring of an organization can occur as the result of identified efficiency improvements, a response to new policies, or simply a desire to change the power structure within an organization. Many of us have probably seen a new administration demote employees to positions of less influence, but such changes will often be put down to efficiency improvements or policy changes.
Organizational restructuring due to efficiency improvements will happen if problems have been identified. For example, an organization might identify functions that are no longer needed or decide that less people are required to fulfill certain responsibilities. Restructuring allows an agency to carry out its mission more effectively by shifting positions to form a new reporting hierarchy. Similarly, a change in policy might require an organizational realignment to fulfill the new mission and objectives.
It is highly unlikely that an administration will openly indicate that the purpose of their organizational restructuring is to move preferred individuals to the newly elected administration or agency head. To ensure the change appears legitimate, the new administration might delay implementing it for several months. A longer delay between the change in administration and the organizational restructuring draws attention away from perceived political favoritism.
It is the administration in power that defines policy. While the impact might be subtle at lower levels of an agency, a major policy change will be felt throughout the entire organization. Early signs of policy changes from a new presidency will occur during the election cycle when candidates advocate for changes they support.
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In some situations, a policy change might merely affect the way some criminal justice professionals perform their duties. For example, a change in policing policy, such as requiring officers to wear body cameras, might affect police interactions with the public. Within the corrections field, a new use of force policy might affect officer-inmate interactions. Finally, a policy shift from a punitive to a rehabilitative approach within community corrections might alter supervision plans for probation and parole officers.
Concentrate on Doing Your Job Well
Every law enforcement officer will experience administration changes throughout their career. The first major administration change I witnessed occurred less than two years into my criminal justice career, but the advice a seasoned co-worker gave me during that first period of change still rings true.
His advice was to keep doing your job to the best of your abilities and stay low in the trenches. In other words, avoid any personnel battles within your agency and just concentrate on carrying out the responsibilities of your position. As criminal justice professionals, your main focus should be on ensuring public safety within your community. Throughout any and all changes, that aim should remain constant.
About the Author: Dr. Ron Wallace is a criminal justice professional with more than 30 years of experience in both the public and private sectors. He has worked with criminal justice agencies nationwide as a consultant on various projects and has several years of teaching experience at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Ron currently serves as an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at American Military University.