County’s judges slower to revoke probation

Douglas County judges are slower than their counterparts elsewhere in Kansas when it comes to revoking criminals’ probation and sending them to prison, a review by the Journal-World found.

“There’s no sense in coming in front of the judge with one violation and asking that probation will be revoked,” said Ron Stegall, chief executive probation officer for Douglas County. “Our judges just won’t do that. There are other counties that have a reputation for much quicker revocation on much less violation.”

To the mother of a 13-year-old girl raped in 2003, it’s a sign that probation in Douglas County is too lenient. One of the men convicted in the case, William N. Haney, went to prison last week, but only after a full year of probation violations, including missing sex-offender therapy and breaking curfew.

Others say judges here take the right approach by not sending people such as Haney to prison at the slightest violation.

“I view Douglas County as quite a measure of success,” said Barry Billings, deputy director of Shawnee County’s Community Corrections department. “They’re trying things before they pull the plug on them.”

Second chances

Probation officers don’t ultimately decide whether to send someone to prison. Instead, they work as the eyes and ears of the judge.

If someone on probation is arrested for a new crime, the probation officer automatically tells the judge, Stegall said. But officers have discretion in deciding when to notify the judge of “technical violations,” such as failing to do community service or missing an appointment.

Last year, Douglas County’s Community Corrections department had the fourth-lowest rate statewide –13 percent — of people being sent to prison for technical probation violations, according to the Kansas Department of Corrections. In Shawnee County the number was 28 percent, and in Sedgwick County it was 48 percent.

Douglas County’s Chief Judge Robert Fairchild said the numbers needed to be taken with a grain of salt. Different counties have different kinds of criminals on probation, and judges sometimes use means short of prison to punish violators, such as putting them in the county jail for a few days.

But he said he didn’t disagree with the picture the statistics paint.

“We understand that probationers are going to make mistakes, and we will allow them some leeway in making mistakes,” he said. “We may be more willing to be more involved in their rehabilitation and reformation than some other judges. It requires more work on our part. We have to see them more times, but that’s a part of trying to provide the best service we can to the community.”

Trying to succeed

Douglas County’s Community Corrections program, which is reserved for the highest-risk criminals, served an average of 134 people per day last year.

Stegall said he believed people who truly threatened public safety shouldn’t remain on probation. But he said part of his staff’s job was to help people improve their lives.

“When public safety is not the issue, we are willing to continue to work with them for quite a while,” he said. “If you just send everybody back to prison at the drop of a hat because they commit one little violation, that’s not successful either, because you haven’t worked with the person.”

Stegall said 84 percent of people who left the program last year were successfully discharged. In Sedgwick County, that number was only 49 percent.

Isom Banks, a 48-year-old Lawrence resident, has been on low-supervision probation the past two years for a money-related crime. He’s trying to catch up with paying restitution and is determined to stay out of jail.

“I do not want to be locked up. Life is short,” he said.

He said Douglas County probation officers were professional, and he’s never seen one be a “hard-ass.” He said people’s success on probation “depends on the person and what’s in their mind and their heart.”

Haney’s case

The mother of Haney’s victim said she was shocked he was allowed to be on probation for so long, given a pattern of violations that began shortly after he was sentenced in early 2004.

“Here he was, convicted on a felony, and it’s been a year since his first violation,” she said.

She’s now looking into filing a formal complaint.

“Where is the check and balance for community corrections?” she asked.

Judge Paula Martin said when she revoked Haney’s probation that the probation officer gave him a lot of chances, perhaps more than were warranted.

Stegall said that, in general, his office knew not to take cases back to the judge unless they were “airtight.”

Fairchild said he couldn’t discuss Haney’s case but said judges look at each person individually.

He said he’d like to see more sentencing options between prison and probation. In Douglas County the only alternatives are the Labette County boot camp, which has strict admission requirements, and an often-full residential treatment center in Johnson County.

In some cases, judges want to send people to prison but can’t because of state sentencing guidelines, which were in large part an effort to control the state’s prison population.

Fairchild said the reality was that sentencing in Kansas wasn’t driven by theories of what’s best for the community or for people like Haney.

“The reality is that the Legislature looks at the costs of prisons and says, ‘We don’t want to build any more prisons,'” Fairchild said. “We’re stuck trying to sort all that out.”