Probation and parole officers stretched thinner

Justice » Corrections struggles to track offenders in tight budget times.
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Kody Floyd wears a bullet-proof vest and Taser, and his hand lingers on the pistol resting in his holster. He is standing in the driveway of a Salt Lake City home to protect his partner, who raps on the side door.

It's just past 6 p.m. on a Tuesday, and both Adult Probation and Parole officers left for work before the sun rose. Floyd and compadre Billy Luke won't return home to their families until well past 10.

Time is the officers' biggest enemy with growing numbers of people to check up on. This stop is part of a goal to steamroll through a 13-hour work day in effort to knock on the doors of 105 homes by the end of the month.

A small girl inside the home peers out through the blinds at Floyd, who smiles and waves. She runs to the door and steps out onto the porch next to her mother, who is holding a baby. All appear unshaken by the officers.

Luke asks to see the woman's husband, a registered sex offender. Since he's not home, the officer tells the man's wife to get their new van on the sex-offender registry. He bumps fists with the girl and crosses her father off his list.

Both men wish they could have extended talks with the offenders they visit. But enforcing new laws penalizing sex offenders for failing to update their status on the state's registry falls on the shoulders of already swamped agents.

"In a perfect world, I'd see them all once a day and twice on Sunday," says Floyd. "When they reoffend, that's a new victim. You just don't feel good about not seeing them during a month."

Being out in the field is vital, said Luke, who at the end of the 13-hour day had confiscated a pocketknife from a rapist and caught a man, on parole for sexually assaulting his own kids, just as he was looking at pornography on his computer. The officers are required to visit the highest-risk offenders at home or work once per month and the lowest-risk offenders once every 90 days.

But with probationers and parolees now comprising one of every 136 people in the Salt Lake Valley, monthly checks are growing to be nearly impossible. Officers are coping by downgrading more high-risk offenders and ending supervision earlier for others.

Recent Department of Corrections budget cuts have included a six percent job reduction and the closure of an offender diagnostic center that recommended sentences to help judges. They have also thinned the number of courses offered at Adult Probation and Parole offices, such as anger management and parenting.

Brent Butcher, who oversees probation and parole, said his agents can still rely on classes already offered in the community for offenders.

"One thing the economy has done -- it's made us look at how we distribute our resources," he said.

But the officers are not paid overtime, and high-tech gadgets that allowed them to track offenders from afar are gone. A GPS monitoring device once mapped offenders on a computer screen; an in-home Breathalyzer emitted a blaring noise inside parolee and probationer homes until they blew into a tube to test their blood-alcohol level and have a photo taken.

Some probationers and parolees pay $180 per month for ankle-monitoring devices and officers to track them. But the bill is a tough sell for people with criminal records already struggling to find or keep jobs. And officers usually have to check on unemployed offenders more often since, Luke said, "free time can turn to drugs and deviant thoughts."

Although agents are encouraged to find alternatives to prison for those who violate their probation or parole conditions, Butcher said officers still won't hesitate to recommend prison time for those who threaten themselves or the public. Despite overcrowding concerns, the Board of Pardons and Parole hasn't yet turned to emergency releases of the past.

Luke said he is seeing twice as many new parolees added to his list. He thinks fewer classes mean people released on parole are now less prepared. Both hope their efforts to rummage through closets and sort through refrigerators during home visits are enough.

Some like William Smith, a 31-year-old who was sentenced for first-degree felony rape 10 years ago, in part credit parole agents for giving them life after prison.

"I have this wonderful woman who doesn't judge me by my past," Smith said. "I've done my crime, I've done my time, and now I'm trying to live my life."

Floyd used to walk laps around a halfway house with the 345-pound Rudy Fryer to help him lose weight so he could get knee surgery.

"They've been more of friends than Corrections officers," said Fryer, 52, who is on parole for a felony rape he committed nearly 20 years ago.

Asked whether it can be hard to care about criminals, Floyd said he keeps in mind that he owes it to the public to help the offenders who are out in the community everyday. That means checking on everyone -- even the husband of Shanni Einer when he's recovering from a heart attack.

"We know it is what it's gotta be," said Einer.

At the end of the long day, the work can take its toll. On-call officers can be pulled away from their families on weekends and holidays. And then there's the content of their work: Luke said he has become "literally sick to my stomach" from reading the criminal histories of those he oversees.

"If you work in this job long enough, you become desensitized to certain things," he said. "The trick is to learn how to do that, to protect your own mental health, while still remaining focused on helping the offender. You have to separate the crime from the person."

Probation versus parole

Probation is imposed by a judge in lieu of prison time.

Parole is granted by the Board of Pardons and Parole after an offender has served some prison time.

A judge or the Board of Pardons and Parole can order offenders back to prison if they violate conditions of their release.

Both parolees and probationers are tracked by Corrections officers.

By the numbers

According to the Department of Corrections, there are 11,437 probationers and 3,696 parolees statewide. Nearly half of them live in Salt Lake County, meaning one in every 136 residents are on probation or parole.

Utah added 412 probationers and 255 parolees during 2007, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.