Criminal justice doesn’t end when the prison gate clangs shut behind the departing offender. Unseen, but of great value, are the officers who serve as guardians on the outside, watching over the former prisoners and guiding their integration back into society. While community corrections officers, generally known as parole and probation officers, help offenders transition from prison, they also safeguard the public.

The work of these officers in the criminal justice system only seems to come to light when an offender does something horrible. Considering that around 16,000 released prisoners are currently under supervision in Washington state, the many success stories of these officers usually go untold.

“They truly are invisible,” says Faith Lutze, professor of criminal justice at Washington State University. “We invest billions of dollars in prisons, then we let people out and we kind of waste that investment if we don’t do the aftercare that’s necessary to really help them get reconnected to the community.”

Lutze interviewed 42 community corrections officers in Spokane County and analyzed statistics and research into the daily work and effectiveness of officers nationwide while writing her 2014 book Professional Lives of Community Corrections Officers: The Invisible Side of Reentry. She concludes that community corrections officers act as “street-level boundary spanners” and are essential to effective prisoner reentry. They connect offenders with community services such as substance abuse treatment, employment skills training, and mental health care, as well as liaison with agencies like local law enforcement, child protective services, and the courts.

The officers hold offenders accountable for their behaviors and address their needs for services, which are frequently inadequate or unavailable. Their goal is simple—to keep people safe, reduce recidivism, and get offenders back into society—but their job is complex.

Community corrections officers constantly balance the need for offenders to be compliant with the conditions of supervision on one hand and to connect them with scarce services on the other, says Lutze. “I learned from the interviews that even though those services are not as available as they need to be, the officers at the street level were very innovative. They had their contacts in other agencies and knew who to call.”

Unfortunately both treatment program policies and a lack of support services complicate the boundary-spanning capability of the officers. For example, an employment or substance abuse program may not accept sex offenders, or a mental health clinic may not have room for another patient. “You lose people when they identify a need and then have to wait a month or two months to get access to a service,” says Lutze.

Large caseloads can also compromise the officers’ work. They are spread too thin, says Lutze, with a national average of 110 offenders per officer. Research shows an ideal caseload is 30 to 50, she says, and Washington is stretched with an average of 70.

But, Lutze shows, the costs of not investing in community corrections can add up quickly. Technical violations, like when an offender is out of compliance with the terms of their release, “return a lot of people to jail for a few days or weeks, which is local and costs a lot of money, or back to prison, which is also very expensive.”

Many offenders face poverty and those disadvantages make it hard to get on the right track. Sometimes they have to ask, “Do I pay these fines, or do I pay the rent?”

The community corrections officers address this with a variety of approaches. “In the profession, supervision is seen on a continuum,” says Lutze. “On one end is law enforcement, where you just get tough and make sure they comply. The other is this notion of being a social worker and too soft on crime by only addressing their treatment needs. All the research has shown you need a fluid combination of both.”

Many of the officers Lutze interviewed saw the value of a fluid approach, adapting their responses to individual offenders. “You’ve got to be able to be a social worker. You’ve got to be able to be the cop,” notes one community corrections officer. “If the offender understands that, you are going to have more respect and have more success.”

Lutze praises Washington for embracing research and focusing on what works. The state incorporates community-based supervision across the state and some jurisdictions, including Spokane, have established neighborhood-based supervision in cop shops, which gives officers more direct access to the offenders, families, and neighborhoods.

Another innovative strategy of the state is to use community justice centers, one-stop shops for community corrections, employment and labor help, counselors and psychologists, and substance abuse treatment.

Community corrections officers are “in a unique position because they have power to arrest—the coercive power of the criminal justice system—but also have a complete understanding of offenders’ social and treatment needs,” says Lutze. “They can bridge services by mandating treatment participation, while holding offenders accountable for their behavior.”