Probation, parole officers stretched thin in Barre
Tom Dunn, a 17-year veteran of the Barre Probation and Parole Field Office, says you can walk into his Main Street office on any Saturday and find overworked officers catching up on the paperwork they couldn't squeeze in during the week.
In Barre, as in the rest of the state, the number of offenders on parole, probation or furlough has climbed dramatically in the past 15 years. Probation and parole officers are suffering under the load, according to Dunn and others, and officers are finding it more difficult to achieve their dual goals of protecting public safety while reintegrating offenders into society.
"I don't hear officers saying, 'Get us more money,'" Dunn says. "What I hear people saying is, 'Get us more bodies.'"
Some Barre officers are responsible for supervising up to 62 high-risk offenders living in Barre City and Barre Town. Dave Bellini, a corrections officer and union representative for the Vermont State Employees Association, says such ratios are untenable.
"What's more dangerous to have in your back yard, a maximum-security prison or a probation office? Well I got news for you, it's a probation office," Bellini says.
Bellini says underestimating the importance of intense supervision for offenders living within the general population will feed a cycle of crime that further crowds Vermont's jails. When the Department of Corrections first introduced its bifur-cated high-risk, low-risk supervision system in the early 1990s, the goal was to keep the high-risk ratios at no greater than 25-to-1.
"These are people that, by definition, need to be supervised," Bellini said. "If you don't have manpower to adequately do that, you're going to see undesirable results."
As Vermont legislators and corrections staff figure out how to handle the crush of inmates overcrowding state prisons, probation and parole officers wage a similar battle outside the well-guarded confines of correctional facilities.
Between 1990 and 2005, the number of Vermont offenders on probation, parole and furlough more than doubled, from 6,138 to 12,394. That figure has dropped modestly since. Last week, the number stood at 10,367, the result of a Department of Corrections directive to close out old cases for low-risk offenders – but the probation and parole staff responsible for supervising convicts who live among the general population say growing caseloads and expanded job descriptions have compromised the level of oversight they're able to provide.
"The thing that's changed is we've become reactive versus proactive," says Dunn of the Barre Probation and Parole Field Office. "Historically, when the caseloads were lower, we were able to create interventions earlier on and we could do a better job of coordinating treatment and supervision for our clients."
Legislators on the state's Corrections Oversight Committee heard testimony last week on a Department of Corrections proposal to cap offender-to-officer caseloads at 60-to-1 for high-risk offenders and 200-to-1 for low-risk offenders. Risk level is determined by an assessment called the Level of Services Inventory, which takes into account variables including the severity of the offense, criminal history, substance abuse issues and employment prospects. The committee deferred action on the plan. In Barre, where probation and parole officers endure the most inequitable high-risk ratios in the state, staff say that number is far too high.
Statewide data doesn't necessarily bear out Bellini's claims. While the number of probationers, parolees and furloughees has increased, so too has the number of officers supervising them. Overall ratios have remained largely stable in the past decade, dropping from 49.4 to1 in 1995 to 48.3 to1 today.
"Over the past few years, if anything, the caseloads have gone down," says Jackie Kotkin, field services executive for the Department of Corrections. She says the original goal of keeping high-risk ratios at 25-to-1 wasn't sustainable, but that offender oversight has proven adequate. "The goal was, 'Wouldn't it be nice if the caseload was 25-to-1?' But we were never able to achieve that. Yet I believe the quality of work the staff have done … speaks to the fact that the system in the main seems to work."
Joanne Perreira, director of the Barre Field Office, says officers supervising high-risk offenders juggle a spectrum of duties. She oversees 13 probation and parole officers.
"Sometimes they're meeting once or twice a week with the client, making sure they're following the case plan, making sure they're doing their treatment program, making sure they're employed, living in a supportive environment. They're making sure there's no issues with families or kids, just making sure they're getting the best possible opportunities to become productive members of the community," Perreira says. She says statewide figures don't apply in her office, where caseloads have increased alongside the number of jobs her officers are expected to perform.
"Back a few years ago we started offering treatment at this site," says Perreira. The programs, which address drug use and violent, unsocial behavior, are run by probation and parole officers, some of whom spend the majority of their time delivering those services. That leaves other officers to shoulder the burden of higher caseloads.
Bellini says the added responsibility of delivering services renders the Department of Corrections ratios misleading. Some officers are dedicated solely to running treatment groups. Others, meanwhile, must write up time-consuming pre-sentencing and parole board reports that pull them away from the fundamental task of supervising.
"Do they want probation officers or do they want clinicians?" Bellini says. "Running groups is really not the job of a probation officer in my opinion. We didn't run groups before, and we don't have time for it, frankly."
Rep. Alice Emmons, a Windsor Democrat who sits on the Corrections Oversight Committee, says the ratios might be too high, but she doesn't believe the state can afford right now to augment the Department of Corrections' $100-million-plus budget with more positions for probation and parole officers.
"I've been concerned for quite a while with what the caseloads are out there," Emmons says. She says the committee was reluctant to approve a plan that would introduce, as policy, an offender-to-officer ratio of 60-to-1 for high-risk cases (Kotkin emphasized that the 60-to-1 ratio was a high-end number, and that the department wouldn't load up officers with such high caseloads across the board). "It does put pressure on the Legislature to look at what the state can employ in terms of the number of corrections officers … But money for the next fiscal year is going to be very tight. I don't see an increase in the number of probation and parole officers."
Dunn remembers the "good old days," when his clients got the kind of comprehensive support that helped keep their paths on the straight and narrow.
"We could wrap them up in a team with counselors, correctional officers, field supervision officers, family members, neighbors, employers, so we could help a guy recover," Dunn says. These days, he says, offenders are more likely to violate the terms of their release by committing infractions like drinking alcohol, making contact with a victim or driving without a license. "Now, the fallout is we've got so many cases we're having to respond to we don't have enough hours in the day to do all that."
Perreira says she'd like the Department of Corrections to redefine the role of the probation and parole officer in such a way that they have more time to perform the fundamental task of supervising offenders in the community.
"Because of these caseloads, we tend to do a lot of crisis intervention, a lot of after-the-fact work, instead of preventing things from happening," she says. "I think the state really needs to look at the duties and responsibilities of probation and parole officers and decide what really is a priority and what isn't … If the state wants us to offer all the things we offer now, we need bodies and positions. We need more people to do the job."
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