April 11, 2012
By Mike Killeen
When Colette Peters would daydream about her future career path, she always thought she would be working inside a prison.
"I assumed ... that I would actually be a forensic psychologist working inside a prison," Peters said.
Turns out Peters was half right. The 1993 College of Saint Benedict graduate is working in the corrections field, but very much outside the walls of any of Oregon's 14 correctional facilities.
On Feb. 13, Peters was confirmed by the Oregon Senate as director of the state's Department of Corrections after being appointed to the position by Gov. John Kitzhaber. She is the first woman to lead the Oregon Department of Corrections.
"It's an absolute honor to have been appointed to serve as the director," said Peters, noting that three other women currently direct their state's corrections departments.
"I would say public safety still is more predominantly male than it is female, across the public safety spectrum," Peters said. "As I look at my executive team here, all of whom I inherited, there are more women around the policy group table then men. The same is true with the superintendents, so the agency has done a great job over the years of working really hard to hire the best and brightest, and to achieve the most diverse work force possible.
"As the first female director of the Department of Corrections, I do feel that it is an honor, but I do know the responsibilities that come with that," Peters added. "I think even though every leader has the responsibility to - as I said - hire the best and the brightest and most diverse work force, I think that bar is raised for me."
Peters is a native of Milbank, S.D., a small farming town near the Minnesota-South Dakota border. She toured "quite a few colleges and universities" to help make her decision about where to attend college.
"I knew I wanted to attend a liberal arts college, and really, once I arrived on the campus at Saint Ben's, I absolutely knew that was home," Peters said. "It was a very easy decision, once I arrived and talked to some of the faculty and toured the campus."
Peters' choice on a major was more decisive.
"I knew from a very early age that that I wanted to have a career where I could help people, and a bachelor's degree in psychology seemed the clear path," Peters said.
Following her graduation from CSB, she served as a juvenile counselor in Iowa; worked in a halfway house for gang members in Minneapolis; and as a victim's advocate with the Denver Police Department. Peters also earned a criminal justice master's degree from the University of Colorado.
In 2004, she became the Oregon Corrections Department's public affairs administrator, and was soon promoted to assistant director. Peters was given a second title as inspector general, serving as an adviser to Max Williams, who then ran the Corrections Department.
She left the department in 2008 when her husband, Lynn Snyder (a 1992 Saint John's University graduate) took a job back in Minnesota as a portfolio manager. But in 2009, Peters and her family were back in Oregon when then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski selected her to head the Oregon Youth Authority. She held that post until Kitzhaber appointed her to run the Department of Corrections.
Peters manages some 4,300 employees with a two-year budget of $1.4 billion. Those employees oversee about 14,000 inmates, although that number is expected to grow by 2,000 in the next decade.
"Max Williams is a dear friend and mentor, so I knew exactly what I was inheriting - a well-run agency," Peters said. "When you contrast the adult system to the juvenile system, the stark differences are the number of programming and treatment dollars that are available in the juvenile system, and are not available in the adult system.
"During my tenure, I hope that we can really focus on the things that we know work - like education, work-based education, programming and treatment, that connectedness with community and that connectedness with family," Peters said. "What I'm charging folks with is really thinking about things more broadly, and how can we expand what we know works with the existing resources."
Peters said her education has been instrumental to her success.
"I really am proud to be an alumna of the College of Saint Benedict," Peters said. "I think one of the gifts that the college gives its students is an ability to begin to learn how to think. So, as much as it's about actually leaving with tangible knowledge, it's more that ability to really broaden your thinking and see the world through a much broader lens than any of us came to the table with."