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Probation department poised to exit probationary period

by DERRICK PERKINS
Editor | June 8, 2021 7:00 AM

Justice Court officials are pushing commissioners to continue funding the county probation department after what they describe as a successful two-and-a-half year trial period.

Judge Jay Sheffield, flanked by Vanessa Williamson, county probation officer, told commissioners June 2 that the initiative had proven an overwhelming success. Williamson, who holds a master’s degree in criminology, oversees an average of 55 individuals on pretrial supervision each month as well as another 35 probationers.

Prior to the department’s creation, Williamson’s job duties fell on court clerks. While they could determine who had fallen behind in fees and fines, they were not monitoring any of these individuals in the community, Sheffield said.

“That made absolutely no sense. Tons of people slipped by; the clerks aren’t going out and monitoring anybody,” Sheffield said. “I think the program has been very successful.”

In a letter submitted to the commissioners for review, court officials noted that Williamson’s work includes random night and weekend home checks as well as drug and alcohol screening. She is on call around the clock to answer questions from investigators, respond to incidents and approve detentions and searches.

Williamson monitors defendants up on a charges involving alcohol using remote breath tests and bracelets. Those involved in drugs undergo random testing. Williamson also supervises individuals outfitted with GPS location monitors.

Working toward a second master’s degree in clinical social work, Williamson is working with a local licensed clinical social worker in providing mental health care in the Lincoln County Detention Center. She also aids the county nurse with inmates suffering from previously undiagnosed mental health issues.

Sheffield’s letter credited Williamson with becoming a Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) certified instructor. Considered an expert, she can teach academy courses in de-escalation techniques, addiction and treatment issues as well as how to interact with people suffering from mental illness. She also will help develop future curricula for future academy courses.

Given that level of expertise, Williamson can offer in POST-approved in-service training to local law enforcement, meaning they do not have to travel to Helena for the training.

Sheffield touted Williamson’s role in helping to create a mobile crisis intervention team in Lincoln County. The group, comprised of local mental health providers, could respond to incidents at the behest of law enforcement. County officials are waiting on a $200,000 grant request through the state Department of Public Health and Human Services to get the team up and running.

In the meantime, Williamson — a state certified crisis intervention officer — is providing intervention training to the county’s first responders.

“… Williamson has proven to be an incredible asset to the courts, local law enforcement agencies and the community at large,” Sheffield wrote in the letter. “Her background, education and unrelenting drive to improve the services available to this community are an undeniable benefit to Lincoln County.”

Sheffield also laid out a pay scale for the position of county probation officer, between $22 and $27 an hour. Setting it up now allows for future expansion, he said.

“We’re 25 years away, but at some point we’re going to need three or four other [probation officers], potentially, and if that’s the case we’re going to need some structure,” Sheffield said.

When County Commissioner Mark Peck (D-1) blanched at that thought, Sheffield said the community could grow significantly in a quarter century. If that growth occurred, the demands on the department could increase as well, he said.

Possible future expansion aside, commissioners praised the department and backed Sheffield’s argument for enshrining it. Sheffield told commissioners that he had tracked the department’s performance both as a member of the judiciary and a taxpayer.

“Truthfully, as a taxpayer, I don’t want to fund anything that’s not making good progress,” he said. “It’s been successful beyond my dreams. I think it’s proved to be very beneficial.”

County Commissioner Jerry Bennett (D-2) asked Sheffield to find a formal spot for it on an upcoming board meeting agenda to allow for a vote. Officials expected that discussion to occur on June 9 or June 16.