Photo by Michael Burke
With a career that has spanned 30-plus years, Wes Forman could retire. In fact, he had. But the 58-year-old still loves his profession, and that devotion has brought him to Redding as Shasta County’s new chief probation officer.
“I am working completely on passion right now,” Forman said during an interview in his Court Street office last week.
Forman said he was drawn to the Shasta County position because of the probation department’s “innovative, evidence-based” approach to its work, which he believes is critical for the future of law enforcement.
Forman, who moved to Redding from Ukiah, took over the probation department in mid-June. He replaced Brian Richart, who left at the beginning of the year to work in the private sector.
“Brian and I were colleagues and good friends,” Forman said, and though he was surprised to hear that Richart was leaving as chief probation officer, Forman saw a unique opportunity. In addition to the department’s innovative approach, it was larger and set in a desired location.
Richart is pleased that Forman was selected to replace him. “I felt that everything I worked on would be preserved; that there would be a continuation of the work that I had done.”
Both Richart and Forman believe in the “evidence-based” approach to probation. Richart describes it as a “medical model,” in which an offender is seen as similar to a patient. “One goes in with a problem, has it diagnosed and then is treated,” he said.
Forman said that in the past, probation officers often made subjective decisions about the people they supervised. Evidence-based assessments are research-designed and allow a probation officer to “affect more predictable and positive changes.”
Using assessment tools, probation officers can determine objectively if offenders are at risk of repeating their crimes and if they are a risk to society. The officers can also determine what can be done to help ensure that offenders do not repeat, such as offering substance abuse counseling, education, job assistance or enlisting family support.
With California’s budget crisis and prison overcrowding, Forman said, there is more interest than ever in reducting recidivism rates.
“This is a great time to be in probation,” Forman said. “The state is looking at us as part of the solution to their problems.”
District Attorney Jerry Benito agrees. “Probation is a rehabilitative/restorative concept,” Benito said. “They (in the probation department) are key to the criminal justice system to make sure that there is no re-offense.”
Benito said that probation has more influence in juvenile court, where the emphasis in on rehabilitation; in adult court, punishment is emphasized.
A probation officer has two responsibilities: write reports to the court for both juveniles and adults; and supervise those who are on probation.
The probation department must work closely with the courts, the district attorney’s office, the mental health department, the county sheriff and local police departments. Their interaction with offenders lasts longer than the other entities’, and the skills required are part law enforcement and part social services.
Forman said many people might not know that a four-year degree is a basic requirement to become a deputy probation officer. Many who enter the probation profession have degrees in psychology, sociology or criminal justice.
“Education curriculum stresses it now as a career path,” Forman said, though he isn’t too concerned about which degree someone has. “Personally, I am looking for the effort that goes into completing a four-year degree.”
Forman said he seeks balance in the types of people that he hires. He’s enjoying this phase of his career, in which he is managing and mentoring those in his department.
Forman entered college as a math major, but switched to psychology. “I liked the idea of helping people,” he said.
After working in a juvenile hall, Forman decided he liked working with teenagers and spent most of his time working in juvenile probation. He began his career with the Santa Barbara County Probation Department in 1979, and was its supervising probation manager from 1997 to 2001. Most recently he served as the chief probation officer for Mendocino County.
He has found the transition to Shasta County to be an easy one, both professionally and personally. He and wife Lynn enjoy the outdoors and the many cultural activities that the area offers. While Forman focuses on his new job, Lynn, a retired family therapist, is focusing on her passions – dance and music.
“It feels good; coming here is great,” Forman said. “The progressiveness of the probation department, the lifestyle; I haven’t been disappointed.”