Look inside the numbers
Kelly Shoemake never gets caught up on her work.
When a judge sentences someone to probation instead of jail for committing a crime, the case file often ends up on Shoemake's desk - along with more than 100 others.
"We're limited in what we can do," said Shoemake, a probation officer in Douglas County. "It can be overwhelming."
Shoemake isn't the only probation officer feeling a work crunch. That's because Douglas County probation officers are among the most overworked in the state - and by far the most overworked in other one-county judicial districts such as Shawnee and Johnson.
A Journal-World review of a state probation caseload database shows that Douglas County probation officers each have to keep track of an average of about 150 convicted criminals.
That number, records show, is more than twice what the average probation officer around the state has to manage - and makes the officers' jobs difficult, judicial officials say.
"If we didn't have as many people, could we do more? Sure," said Ron Stegall, chief executive probation officer in Douglas County. "We just don't have the time to help them (criminals)."
Records show the problem stems from the low number of probation officers in the county and, ultimately, a lack of state funding that dictates how many can be hired.
For example, there are hundreds more adult offenders in the probation system in Douglas County than Shawnee County, records show. But while Shawnee County has 44 full-time employees in their court services office, Douglas County has eight.
That leaves each Douglas County probation officer with an average of 148 criminals to keep track of at any given time.
With such a small number of probation officers trying to watch over such a large number of people, some services that officers normally would provide fall by the wayside, said Judge Michael Malone, who dealt with the issue for years as Douglas County's chief judge.
Court officials say those services include education training, counseling for mentally ill clients and field visits to ensure people on probation aren't getting into trouble between their scheduled meetings with officers.
Malone said judges often assign unsupervised probation to misdemeanor offenders who, if the county had more probation officers, would have someone watching over them.
If there were more probation officers, "it would lessen the chance of a person repeating," Malone said. "Overall, people are slipping through the cracks."
Lack of funding
So how do workloads for probation officers get so out of control?
"We're not getting the proper funding from the state," Malone said. "That's how that happens."
Every year, judicial districts send requests for new positions to the state Office of Judicial Administration, or OJA. After the Kansas Supreme Court approves the recommendations, OJA officials then ask lawmakers for money.
Officials with the OJA say they have tried over the years to get more staffing for Douglas County, along with other judicial districts in the state.
OJA records provided to the Journal-World show that the Supreme Court has sent requests for more probation officers to lawmakers every year since 2000 except fiscal year 2006 - the year after the county received a new position.
"The administration's opinion has been to recommend a new position for the district," OJA spokesman Ron Keefover said. "We have gone to bat for Douglas County as much as any other district in the state."
But some of those Supreme Court recommendations may have come in spite of OJA's attempts to maintain current staffing levels.
Records show that in 2001, the OJA did not recommend an increase in probation officers for Douglas County. The Supreme Court at the time rejected the OJA's recommendations and asked legislators to fund the new probation officer position.
Still, Keefover said the state's judicial system has been in a financial crunch the past five years or so - limiting the amount of new judges, probation officers and other positions statewide, not just in Douglas County.
Following the guidelines
Malone said the state-mandated sentencing schedule basically removes judges' discretion when deciding whether a convicted criminal should go to jail or be placed on probation.
For example, Malone said that before sentencing guidelines took effect in 1993, someone with six or seven prior property crime convictions could be sentenced to jail. Now, probation is the accepted option.
"You end up with these state-mandated probations," he said.
To help ease probation officers' burden, the county consolidated the probation officers in the Court Services Department with the Community Corrections Division, which supervises high-level felony offenders. Corrections officers then took over some felony cases.
"You triage," Malone said.
But cutbacks in services were still necessary. Pre-sentencing reports - which let judges know the criminal and personal history of an offender - aren't done for most misdemeanor crimes anymore because probation officers don't have the time to do them.
Malone said he often hears cases knowing "little to nothing" about the defendant.
Lawmakers next month will have a chance to help. Officials from the OJA will present their recommendations to lawmakers in the House Budget Committee on Feb. 12.
Included in those recommendations will be one more probation officer position for Douglas County - although even if it is approved, it's doubtful the new officer would bring caseloads here back on par with the rest of the state.