Sacramento County’s Chief Probation Officer, Marlon Yarber, discusses his department’s goal of achieving positive change
By Jeff Vonkaenel in the Sacramento News and Review
Marlon Yarber was born and raised in Stockton. His personal experiences there, in large part, he says, helped shape his career: His father was career military and went on to work for 20-plus years at what was then called the California Youth Authority. Yarber also grew up with extended family on both sides of the law, as well as a close-up view of gang activity in his hometown. The end result? Yarber has long questioned the system, particularly why so many Black people end up arrested and incarcerated.
He started his professional career running a mentoring program, then as a juvenile probation officer, where he recalls wearing khakis and a polo shirt and carrying an old bag, a cell phone and a clipboard to take notes on. His caseload would double almost immediately, but it was there he learned his most important job was to listen—the strategy new probation officers are taught today.
He brought these ideas with him as he began to influence policy, first as a criminal justice specialist and supervisor of a gang suppression unit. After a stint in Yolo County, he became the Assistant Chief of Sacramento Probation in 2013, and was appointed Chief here in 2021.
Marlon, I really appreciate you meeting with us today and doing this deeper dive into a discussion about the probation department. How does your personal life and policy work, together, translate into your vision for positive change?
I think it’s all of those experiences that have really helped shape what I think is the future for the department. With (former Chief) Lee Seale able to transform and really change the culture of the department here in Sacramento specifically, now I think my interest is doing more to engage the public.
Can you think of personal examples of people that have been examples of positive change?
One example I can think of very clearly is a gentleman who we worked with in our Adult Day Reporting Center. He was 60 years old, never had legitimate employment, had a murder in his background from another state. He winds up here in California, touches the system and ends up (incarcerated). He gets out, we assess him, connect him to the treatment modalities, the programming at our Day Reporting Center. He completes that, completes his education for the first time ever—he had never, at 60, completed his GED. He goes through the vocational training program with Northern California Construction and Training, completes that and obtains his first legitimate job ever.
You’re a large employer. How many people work for the department?
We’ve got roughly 700 staff. About a 100 of those are administrative professionals. The other are our sworn officers. I think we’ve got the best department in the state, and it’s largely due to the staff that we have hired. I’m always amazed I can come up with the big hairy idea, the crazy idea and the staff says, ‘Not sure about this part, but let us see what we can do.’ And it’s better than what I conceived or just threw off the cuff. It’s always very rewarding to just see the level of buy-in and implementation. The creativity astounds me.
Obviously there’s been a sea change in thinking about probation, in which the 700 members live in on a daily basis. So what’s it like for them to be really focused on positive change and doing the implementation of the deep dive with individuals and stuff, as opposed to being much more of a rule enforcer?
The work’s actually become harder. We have to have better trained, more highly skilled, well educated staff to help implement whatever the treatment modality or interventions might be. We need people from all walks of life. We always like to say, in our recruitment message, have you ever been a member of a team, like to coach or teach, do you counsel, do you volunteer?
You can apply all of those tools to the field of probation because we need all of those abilities in order to be successful in the mission.
Do you have recruitment needs right now?
Yes. Unfortunately. A few things are at play, whether it’s the social justice efforts tied specifically to like the George Floyd death during the height of the pandemic or the pandemic itself more generally. It’s really challenged us, as we’ve seen in many industries, with getting people to come and accept what are great paying truly rewarding and satisfying jobs.
My messaging is always that our No. 1 priority right now is recruitment—getting as many people who are qualified, able, interested in wanting to do this type of work.
I also make myself available for recruitment efforts and whenever I’m speaking to a group, I say, ‘If you’ve ever thought you wanted to give back, there’s no better place to help implement better solutions than to work in the probation department.’ We are about positive change but we’re also about balancing that accountability and opportunity.
The interaction and ability to kind of tell this story is truly appreciated because I think we have to begin talking about probation as a career path for elementary school kids. We get kids that say I want to be a cop. I want to be a firefighter, I want to be a teacher. I want to go play football.
But you never hear a kid ever say they want to be a probation officer, unless they’ve had a family member who was an officer. Or they had a family member who was on probation and the experience was positive. Aside from that, there’s really little exposure, and some of that’s due to the fact we work in the shadows.
A lot of the work is confidential and we don’t go about talking about our clientele often. But we have to begin messaging earlier and to the public: This is a great place and truly satisfying work where you can give back to your community and also help with regards to public safety.