Sunday, July 15, 2007

Probation officers act as court's eyes and ears


In Santa Barbara County 119 probation officers keep tabs on 6,600 adults and 1,350 juveniles each year.
They knock on the doors of million-dollar mansions, and an hour later enter the living rooms of hardened criminals in dingy apartment buildings. Behind one door they could find guns or drugs and make an arrest. Behind another, they might find a person who has made an improvement since the last visit.
And it’s this mystery that keeps at least three longtime Santa Barbara-based probation department employees going.

“You just don’t know what to expect when you walk in,” said Ron Alonzo, a supervising deputy probation officer who has worked in the department for the past 23 years. “Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something different comes up.”
Like the time when Laurie Holbrook, a seasoned 20-year senior deputy probation officer, was told by a juvenile over the phone that she would be stabbed if she made a house visit.
Or the time a person reported to the probation department at 117 East Carrillo St. and picked a fight with a probation officer during a routine search. Turned out the probationer had a stash of drugs.
It’s all part of the job — an often times dangerous, behind the scenes job that rarely gets talked about unless one has had a recent run-in with the law.
“They are problem solvers, crime prevention specialists, motivators, educators, facilitators and often times they are the only support system an offender may have,” said Lori Crestfield, a senior probation officer who now acts as the department’s public information officer. “The work they do goes largely unnoticed and yet, it is one of the most important jobs in public safety.”
Aside from making home visits and knowing the ins-and-outs of nearly every kind of crime, the probation department acts as the eyes and ears of the court system.
Crestfied said seven probation department employees work full-time writing sentencing reports for the court.
Because probation officers are the ones who know the people behind the crimes, they are the ones who give recommendations to the judge for sentencing.
When filing sentencing reports, Crestfield said the probation officers take all things into account. Specifics, like if a crime was committed by a person who already has a criminal record, or by a working person who has never been in trouble.
She said this kind of information is invaluable for judges, who sometimes take the recommendations the probation department makes on sentencing, or alter them slightly.
“That’s one of our really, really important jobs,” Crestfield said. “We are at the court’s command.”
Despite the hefty workload — local probation officers are sometimes in charge of 70 cases — Alonzo, Holbrook and Crestfield all fell into their jobs unexpectedly and have enjoyed them enough to turn them into careers.

Both Alonzo and Holbrook said they decided to become probation officers in college after taking elective courses taught by former probation officers.
Holbrook said it was the stories her professor told about the profession that turned her onto the idea of becoming a probation officer.
“I knew that was what I wanted to do,” Holbrook said. “Crime is interesting.”
Crestfield said a probation officer is assigned to pretty much anyone convicted of committing a crime. She said probation status is assigned to people who stay within the county’s jurisdiction, while people who enter the state prison system are assigned to parole.
However, some local probation officers have a dual responsibility for people who have been placed on probation and parole.
Aside from helping people, Holbrook said one of her favorite aspects of the job is seeing the diverse situations and places people live.
Since probation officers are in the streets and houses, constantly observing and talking to people, one might wonder if probation officers could help provide some insight into social issues such as gang violence.
When asked about how her perspective on certain issues might help find resolutions, Holbrook said her opinions are simply opinions, and are no different than any other person in the community.
Like any public servant who’s job is to focus on crime-related issues, whether it be sexual abuse, drugs, theft or gang activity, Alonzo said the job can be emotionally draining.

“I think it [is] at times,” Alonzo said. “It gets discouraging. You just kind of laugh it off.”
But regardless of how tough or sad the job can be, those who do it love it.
“There’s never a dull moment,” Holbrook said. “You learn something new every day.”
And if that’s not enough?
“It beats sitting behind a desk and counting widgets all the time,” she said.
Probation officers will receive recognition for their work this week when the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors and Governor Schwarzenegger are set to honor probation employees as part of the nationwide Probation, Parole & Community Supervision Week that begins on July 15 and runs until July 21.

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