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Mobile-based units supplemented by technology to keep parole officers connected

POSTED: May 25, 2013 12:26 a.m.

Parole officers in more than 30 offices in Georgia have cleared out their desks to make way for a transition to mobile-based offices, a move which has earned national attention.

Officers in Gainesville are one of a handful of offices to get the perks of sophisticated mobile technology, paired with a home base.

“The Gainesville office will remain open, but the aspect of having parolees regularly come in to the office, or the officers regularly coming in to do their work, we’re moving that to the virtual office concept,” said Steve Hayes, spokesman for Georgia’s State Board of Pardons and Parole.

The building is owned by the state, as are the five other offices that will eventually be the only remaining offices in the state.

“I was talking to one of the other officers in training last week, and he was talking about the emotion that went along with clearing out an office that you’ve had for 20 years. You just never think about that,” said Specialized Senior Officer Victoria Carter, an officer at the Gainesville location.

“It’s a benefit to the community to have the parole office in Hall County stay open,” she said. “It allows us to have meetings; other regional offices can come in and use our space; our legal investigators will be able to use the space; it gives us a physical address.”

While having a brick and mortar base is nice, the mobile technology facilitates the workflow of what a typical parole officer does, Carter said.

“I would say 90 percent of our job is in the field. There may be some days when we leave the house and we go out in the field and we never step foot in our office,” she said.

The transition to mobile accommodates that job description, said Hayes.

“Being in the field has always been a mainstay of supervision,” Hayes said. “When I say ‘field’ I mean community. This enhances it, puts the parole officers out there more, as they should be. There were many cases where they didn’t need to be in the office, and weren’t necessarily spending a lot of time in office anyway. This virtual office concept simply allows them to turn their car into a mobile office,” Hayes said.

One recent evening on patrol, Carter and Parole Officer Dain Dias took off from the Gainesville office, a laptop and mobile printer on deck and smartphones in hand, for the first of several check-ins with parolees.

As Carter pulled up to her first stop in a neighborhood off Cornelia Highway, she chatted with neighborhood children who ran to the car excitedly.

“It’s important for us to get a feel for how things are going at home. To talk to mom, to talk to dad, to really get a feel for if there’s an issue going on,” she said. “Likewise with their employers. When we’re out at an employer, most of the time we’re talking to a manger or human resources. We get an idea of their attendance, their attitude, how they’re performing at work. All those things are really important to us, we want to make sure that they’re doing well out in the community.”

Before pulling onto Cornelia Highway for her next stop, Carter typed up notes as Dias entered the address for the next parolee.

“This interaction is put in to the computer, and goes into our central management system. That saves me from having to go home and spend two, three hours entering interactions at home. It’s a great benefit as far as conservation of time and allowing us to redirect our resources into the field,” she said. “Dain could also do the interactions for me while I’m driving.”

As a specialized officer whose parolees have more stringent supervision requirements, Carter’s current case load is a bit lower than most at 44, she said. Dias estimates he oversees about 75 cases.

She stressed again why time physically spent out in the community rather than behind a desk is so critical.

“It’s building those relationships. For example, if he’s not doing something, his wife is going to pick up the phone and call me, and say ‘so-and-so just had a beer,’ or whatever,” she said. “Being in the field gives us the opportunity to really nurture those bonds.”

And those bonds go beyond just the family and employers, but into treatment.

“If I have somebody who doesn’t show up for sex offender counseling, I’m automatically going to call on my cellphone their counselor to say ‘Hey, so-and-so didn’t show up, and we need to address that,’” Carter said.

Carter clarified legal terms that are often confused: probation and parole. One is punitive, the other a privilege, she explained.

“Probation is more of a sanction that’s used by the court systems to punish offenders prior to sending them to prison,” she said. “With parole, we handle offenders who are coming straight out of the prison system, so they’ve been in the system for felony offenses.”

With that privilege comes certain boundaries, of course.

“It really depends upon what the violation is,” Carter said. “For instance, if someone is not abiding by their curfew, we could put them on our electronic curfew system. If it’s a positive drug screen, then we would send them to treatment and counseling through New Hope, who we have a state contract with. We could also utilize things like anger management, family violence counseling.

“This is the thing about parole, as a parole officer — obviously run things by our chief — but we have discretion based on each case on how we handle things.”

But parolees do have one thing in common: They are required to be either working or seeking employment.

“We as an agency find employment to be extremely important. It provides stability for the offender, not only financially but also, you know, ‘idle hands.’ You don’t want somebody not to be focused on something,” she said.

“You want them busy doing productive things,” Dias added.

And checking on parolees without conflicting with their work schedules means work shifts for parole officers that don’t exactly mesh with the office’s 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. hours.

“I expect you to work, I expect you to get a job, but you are working at an office building that’s 8 to 5. How am I supposed to expect you to be home if you’re at work?” she said. “So as a parole officer, you get to know your case load, and you have to pick, early in the morning or late at night, or both.”

Carter splits her days, starting around 4 a.m., and ending at 10 or 11 p.m., she said.

“Being virtual lends itself to that flexibility,” she added.

But the money saved by consolidation of the other Georgia offices was not the motive, Carter stressed.

“Going virtual, the money was not the reason. That was not what we saw as the biggest benefit,” Carter said. “The biggest benefit was putting officers out in the community. It was community supervision; it was enhancing public safety, creating those bonds with the treatment providers; strengthening our bonds with the local law enforcement agencies. It was never about the money — the money was an added benefit.”

Parole officer interview

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