Erika Preuitt still remembers why she became a parole and probation officer (PPO) more than 20 years ago.
As a Portland native, growing up in Northeast Portland’s inner city, Preuitt’s mother was the first African American woman police officer hired by the city in 1973 and one of the first five women placed on street patrol. Despite a demanding job, she volunteered as a coach, was active in her church and visited local schools. Preuitt’s father, a local award-winning blues artist and community activist, advocated for health care for all citizens.
“The example they set put me on a path of wanting to build community and influence the lives of those involved or impacted by community violence,” Preuitt says. “My mother modeled courage and perseverance. She showed what it meant to care about the community and engaged us in these efforts at an early age. I love Northeast Portland and wanted to be a part of making a difference in the community where I lived. And one of the populations that I was really invested in was working with was gang members.”
Preuitt would go on to become a parole and probation officer with Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice (DCJ) Gang Unit, working to help gang members change their destructive behavior. Today, she is the Director of the DCJ’s Adult Services Division, overseeing all units that work to keep the public safe, reduce the recurrence of crime and change the behavior of adults on supervision.
These efforts have earned her national recognition.
Wednesday, Aug. 31, she will be sworn at a national conference in New York, as the first African American President of the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA), the international advocacy organization for pretrial, probation, parole and community-based corrections professionals. She will be introduced to conference participants by Scott Taylor, Director of DCJ and past president of APPA.
“Probation and parole officers give them the tools to be able to do this [change behavior],” she says. “I go to community meetings and there are people that were on my caseload who are working as mentors and partners giving back to their communities. When I interact with them I am humbled to know them and to have been a small part of their lives. I know this work matters.”
Preuitt’s work draws from a commitment to use data to guide decision-making, collaboration with public safety partners, and strong ties to her community.
Multnomah County's Communications Office sat down with Preuitt to discuss her priorities as she leads the international organization.
Who belongs to the American Probation and Parole Association and what do they do?
The American Probation and Parole Association has more than 90,000 members from the United States, Canada and other countries. We are very proud of the diverse population community corrections professionals that we serve. The organization prides itself on providing quality education, training and technical assistance. The association includes professionals from pretrial, probation and parole and juvenile justice, working to inform the field on emerging trends in evidence-based practice to enhance service delivery.
How does someone become the president of the APPA?
A person must be nominated for the position by a member of the APPA Board of Directors, then elected by APPA members. To be eligible to run for president you have to have served on the Board of Directors for two years prior to your election. I was on the executive committee for about six years before I ran for President-elect. I served under two presidents as an At-Large Regional Representative and under another president as secretary.
People would say, ‘Erika, why didn’t you run for Vice President? Why’d you go straight to President-elect?’ I felt I was ready to serve the association in this role because I understood the association and had great role models. I was able to serve under four presidents, one of those being DCJ’s Executive Director Scott Taylor. I sought his advice and he encouraged me and had confidence that I was ready for this challenge. I am so grateful for the exposure I’ve had to some very capable, competent and visionary APPA leaders.
What will your priority be as the first African American person to lead this organization? What do you hope to accomplish as president?
President Susan Burke focused on the synergy that was developing in the community corrections field saying, “This is our time.” As more policy makers rely on the positive outcomes gained through community supervision I will be focused on “APPA leading the way.” The APPA will stand strong to address issues that combat mass probation, explore reducing barriers for justice-involved individuals, eliminate racial and ethnic disparities, promote justice reinvestment and most important, establish standards for the field that will bring us together as community corrections professionals. At Multnomah County, we’ve been prioritizing work around racial and ethnic disparities, and I’m excited to engage in a national conversation sharing knowledge and strategies to reduce disparities.
I’ve been instrumental in coordinating community dialogues at our conferences. We have talked about unrest and tension in our community and the impact this has on our profession. [By] having that conversation, we saw the polarization that is happening in our communities not only impacts us as professionals but also personally. We were able to come together as a profession and not only talk about what are we seeing in our communities; we were also able to talk about solutions.
What experience will you bring from Multnomah County to your national role?
The role that I play here at DCJ, as the Director of the Adult Services Division, has helped me prepare for this role. What I’ve learned as director, is the power of decision making, strong facilitation, equity and collaboration. I have learned to seek understanding about problems and to seek solutions. I have engaged in budget development and management. Facilitation is one of my strengths. I’ve been involved in efforts where there has been a strong influence of collaboration and follow-through. I believe all of the above and more has prepared me for this role. Most of all, what prepares me for this role is a deep caring for healing our communities and uplifting our profession.
How will your core value, a belief that “people change,” influence your presidency?
What drew me to this field was the knowledge that people have the ability to change their behavior when given the proper resources, guidance and support. I have been grateful for the grace that I have received and the opportunity to change in my own life.
As a PO, I worked with young men who were absolutely wreaking havoc in our communities. Gang activity at that point was pretty acute. To be able to work with the gang members on my caseload was a challenge because they were so rooted in their gang lifestyle - to break through this was really rewarding. When I see [former gang members] in their communities, being pillars and role models, supporting their children and building a strong generation of youth within their family, I know that the work that we do to change behavior has an exponential value. I’ll always believe in that and it will continue to drive me in this work.
It is so powerful to see this in action. And when we change one individual, we change families,. we change communities, we make communities safer. This will be my touchstone as I prepare to lead an international association, the caliber of the American Probation and Parole Association.
What are you most excited for in your new position?
I am excited to strengthen our association by cultivating current collaborations, building new relationships and forging new partnerships. We have an opportunity to continue to flourish and grow as a profession. The momentum is building for “APPA to Lead the Way.” I know the road ahead will have bumps and I am grateful for Multnomah County’s support and support from the APPA. I look forward to growing as a professional as I work with our Executive Director, APPA staff, Executive Committee and Board of Directors to take APPA to the next level of excellence and influence.
What are your goals for yourself?
First and foremost, I am a wife and a mother. I am humbled to serve APPA in this capacity and know that balance and self care will be imperative to my success. I want to be rooted in my faith, family and profession ensuring that I am modeling humility, integrity and commitment to my family, DCJ employees, APPA members and the greater community corrections profession.