Breaking the cycle: County probation helping guide offenders into better life

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Lincoln County Justice of the Peace Jay C. Sheffield told the Lincoln County Commissioners on Wednesday that he has been impressed with what the county’s misdemeanor probation officer has accomplished in only a few months.

Sheffield said that after only weeks into having a county misdemeanor probation officer, County Attorney Marcia Boris and Montana 19th District Court Judge Matt Cuffe joined him in being thrilled with how well it was working.

“I’ve been in this community, working for the county for 12 years, 10 years as a judge, and in the time she’s been here, she’s found resources in this community that I did not know even existed,” he said.

Probation officer Vanessa Williamson supervises both those on pre-trial supervision who have been charged with a felony and those on probation with a misdemeanor conviction.

Without a misdemeanor probation officer in the county, those she supervises on release would either be in jail or bonded out without monitoring.

Williamson told the commissioners that she has 22 individuals she supervises who are on pre-trial release. Of those, 11 are employed either in a job they already had before their arrest or in a job they found as part of the conditions of their release.

Ten of those 22 are in either mental health or substance abuse treatment, she said. One has even sought a GED through Flathead Valley Community College.

She currently is supervising two individuals who are on misdemeanor probation as well, Williamson said. They are required to check in daily or weekly.

However, Williamson noted that she has had an additional seven people who were not placed on probation come to her seeking assistance with getting their lives together, such as by connecting them with a program for substance abuse treatment.

Sheffield said that, while there is still the possibility of going back to jail to help incentivize those on supervised release, they now have more options to help people get their lives together.

“It’s not that these are particularly bad people, just bad things happen when they’re under the influence,” Sheffield said.

“The idea is to get it handled, and they don’t come back,” he said.

Commissioner Peck said that there are tangible cost savings in having 22 people outside of the jail. Each person in jail costs the county $75 per day, even without accounting for things such as the healthcare costs of inmates for which the county is responsible.

But the potentially even greater savings is in breaking the cycle, as people get on their feet and don’t become repeat offenders, he said.

“I’m a hawk when it comes to watching tax dollars,” Sheffield said. “But this is a program that we’re getting some serious bang for our buck.”

Down the line, the intervention at this level can translate into unknown numbers of drunk driving crashes or thefts that never occur, he said.

Sheffield told the commissioners that just having the accountability of someone checking in on people can make a difference in helping them to break out of their behavior patterns.

Williamson said that she is also applying for a grant that will help with dealing with domestic violence offenders.

In the past year, there were 89 partner or family member assault cases in Lincoln County, she said.

“So, I think there’s a huge need for that,” she said.

The majority of those cases likely come back to substance abuse as well, Sheffield said.

Break the cycle

During the meeting, Peck pointed out that many of the problems with crime and substance abuse pass from generation to generation within the same family.

“You’re not just fixing the current,” he said.

Peck said that there are people who don’t even know how to apply for a job because they don’t have others in their family to look to as examples.

In helping people to get their lives together, many of the solutions are relatively simple, but people who have fallen into a cycle of being on the wrong side of the law just don’t know about them, Williamson said.

She brought up the example of how many she has dealt with who have suspended driver’s licenses, but don’t even know what the suspension is for.

“One guy only had to pay an $85 ticket in Washington to get his license,” she said.

In an interview after the meeting, Williamson said that she was initially surprised by the number of people who have come in on their own seeking her help, even though they haven’t been ordered to supervision by the court.

One man with alcohol addiction problems came to her looking for a better treatment program than those he had gone to in the past, she said.

And it has been a learning experience for Williamson as well in regard to what forms of assistance are out there. Such as that people who qualify for medicaid also qualify for job training.

There is also a free program that helps felons to get a bond so they can get work, she said.

Williamson said that for some of the people she has dealt with, just having someone who is checking on them and keeping them accountable is a big change in their life, and one that is appreciated.

“I think everybody’s been incredible so far,” she said.

That checking in might be by phone or text message, she said. For those who are facing substance abuse charges, she also administers random tests.

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