Archive for Sunday, January 28, 2007

Douglas County probation officers among most overworked in state

January 28, 2007


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)."

Work overload

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.

Overworked probation officers

Probation officers in Douglas County regularly supervise above-average caseloads compared to the rest of the state. Enlarge video

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.

Douglas County probation officers, including Kelly Shoemake, are the most overworked in the state. Shoemake reviews paperwork from a case Friday at the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center, 111 E. 11th.

Douglas County probation officers, including Kelly Shoemake, are the most overworked in the state. Shoemake reviews paperwork from a case Friday at the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center, 111 E. 11th.

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.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 11 years, 1 month ago

It costs a lot more money to send someone to prison, which is much less effective at reducing recidivism, but this idiot legislature will likely opt for more prisons before better funding the courts and probation services.

imastinker 11 years, 1 month ago

If they have so many prisoners, they shouldn't have to spend too much to build another prison - jsut use the prisoners to build their new cell.

That will never work though - because people like bozo will think that is cruel and unusual. Cable TV and weight rooms is what you want.

toefungus 11 years, 1 month ago

If a probation officer does a poor job, do they go on probation?

Confrontation 11 years, 1 month ago

Maybe we could hire more probation officers instead of wasting money on crappy art projects. A fireman statue or someone checking up on criminals? Isn't the choice obvious?

doc1 11 years, 1 month ago

That's because everyone in Douglas County gets probation. We habe terrible judges here.

Kat Christian 11 years, 1 month ago

Douglas Co. does have crappy Judges. They should not even hear a case unless pre-sentencing has been done. So many criminals slip through the cracks because of this then bam they go and commit and even worse crime such as rape or murder. I believe when a criminal faces the court that Judge should know the background of that offender so they can be Judge adequately. If that person is a repeated offender they should not get probation but jail time. I think this town cuddles too many offenders too many times.

Kontum1972 11 years, 1 month ago

nobody makes them be probation officers....its the job they shut the heck up and do your job...if u dont like the another career...its that simple...put up or shut up...!

Kontum1972 11 years, 1 month ago

u can always enlist in the US Military....they really need help at this point in the WAR ON TERROR....! and it pays pretty good....

trinity 11 years, 1 month ago

um, pogo? court services probation officers are not employed by the county, but rather the state. the community corrections officer, who handle the higher level felony cases, are employed by the county. just a lil' fyi.

sweetiepie 11 years, 1 month ago

There are always the oddest comments made here. Probation officer positions are not really considered "social service" jobs, but "criminal justice" jobs (there is a difference). I don't know the numbers, but probably as many men as women serve in this capacity.

Where all the comments about "touchy-feely" types and "if u don't like the job. . seek another career" come from, I don't know, but they have nothing to do with the issue: Douglas County officers (men and women) have 148 clients they deal with for every 22 that a Shawnee County officer has and every 55 that a Johnson County officer has. And let's be very serious here, folks--many of those clients are pretty dangerous, unstable people. There is nothing "touchy-feely" about that.

You can make all the remarks you want about the officers, but they are very concerned with YOUR safety as they deal with these people. When those clients get out of compliance (like when they buy guns or start selling crack again), it's the probation officers who can see that they finally go to jail.

Just because you don't see the law enforcement that they are involved with doesn't mean that it isn't being done--in fact, maybe that's how you can tell they do their jobs--you rarely see anything about it.

Godot 11 years, 1 month ago

When I scanned the title, I read, "most overweight in state."

simplifying 11 years ago

The judges in Douglas County see the person standing before them as real people, and utilize the court system to create therapeutic moments in order to provide the opportunity for change in addition to their job to impart justice and protect the community. Attorneys from other parts of the state who come here to practice often state the local judges actually llisten to the attorneys. The probation department is overworked and positions are needed. In my work with them the women as well as the men use both methods to get to their clients, hardline works for some and touchy-feely works for others and they both do each well.

A local defense attorney.....

hawklet21 11 years ago

wow Kontum... intelligent response (note sarcasm)

outtatowner 11 years ago

My wife was a probation officer in Douglas County for several years. She never complained about the hours or the low pay because she really wanted to help make a difference. She left because there was no time left at the end of the day for our family. She literally had nothing left to give anyone. The politics that probation officers have to deal with is unbelievable. I would gladly work two jobs if needed to keep her from being a Douglas County probation officer.

Bone777 11 years ago

"Douglas County probation officers among most overworked in state"

Having a large caseload does not make you over-worked. It is what you do with your forty hours that make you over worked or not. A better title would have been:

Douglas County probation officers spread thin with large caseloads.

DMH1983 10 years, 11 months ago

Bone777, do you actually understand the duties of a probation officer? Do you understand the hours of paperwork, one-on-one interaction, survelience, court appearrances, and colleteral checks that go into one case? Much less 150! I am a Johnson County probation officer and I have heard horror stories for years about Douglas County Court Services and how overworked their officers are!

To the fool the thinks Probation Officers are "touchy-feely weak female Social Workers". . . I am a female officer in my early twenties. . . If I am weak and touchy-feely in my CRIMINAL JUSTICE position, I simply will not survive.

perkins 10 years, 11 months ago

We rejoice that this county does not have the thug element that other areas with a less white shade of pale endure.

Yeah, I can understand why a Douglas County p.o. would have a higher number of probationers than the counties with more violent offenders.

I doubt that a Douglas County probation officer would exchange places with one in Topeka or Wichita or Kansas City.

Sigmund 10 years, 11 months ago

There is a simple solution, less probation and more jail time.

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