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Work of Kandiyohi County probation officers is challenging, time-consuming and oftentimes misunderstood

Angie Gort, who supervises adults on probation, is one of 20 probation officers in Kandiyohi County. She says probation officers measure their success by whether they see repeat offenders going through the court system. This week is Probation, Parole and Community Supervision Week. (Carolyn Lange/West Central Tribune)

WILLMAR - Their days typically start around 6 a.m. and can turn from mundane to madness in a matter of minutes.

But Kandiyohi County probation officers say the duty they have to provide public safety, and the desire they have to help people change their lives, keeps them on the job.

Many of the 20 probation officers in the county have been on the job for 15 to 20 years. It's a job that's changed dramatically during that time and it's a job that's often misunderstood.

"We don't work like they do on TV," said Serena Robak, who provides adult probation services.

Kandiyohi County probation officers don't break down doors and don't carry guns, she said.

The Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners will today hear a report from the department, which has 20 probation officers on staff. This week is "Probation, Parole and Community Supervision Week."

Deb West, director of Kandiyohi County Community Corrections, said 28 years ago when she was first hired to the team of three probation officers, people who were convicted of a crime either got jail or a fine "and that was kind of it" and officers made sure the penalties were fulfilled.

Now probation officers also do such things as substance abuse assessments, mental health screening, needs and risks assessments and electronic monitoring. They also must be on call at any moment to go to court.

"One day they may play the part of a counselor, the next they are enforcing the rules of an offender's supervision. They are problem solvers, crime prevention specialists, motivators, educators, facilitators and often times they are the only support system an offender may have," said West.

Seated around a large conference table recently, West and nine probation officers all agreed on the two things that have changed their jobs the most: Legislative mandates and paperwork.

For example, in the past a sex offender would typically be on probation for five years. Now it's 25 years.

"It takes a lot of time to keep that group compliant with their forms," said West.

Because new sex offenders are being added to the list every year and few are removed because of the length of probation time, the caseload numbers are growing. Kandiyohi County now has two full-time probation officers strictly dedicated to monitoring sex offenders.

West said in the past they "used to spend a lot more quality time with people."

Probation officers used to go to offenders' homes or meet over coffee. That kind of connection was especially important for juvenile offenders who looked to probation officers as role models.

There's less time to meet people "on their own turf," said Kurt Robak, who supervises adults. "We still go out as much as we can. We haven't totally abandoned it," he said. But the available time is getting less and less.

Many of the cases have become more complicated because more of the offenders have mental illness, are chemically dependent or both. Corrections is becoming a "catch-all" for people with mental illness, said West.

Probation officers like Sharon Hendrichs, who oversees juvenile offenders, said their caseloads are increasing, in part, because kids may be charged with offenses that had been dealt with more informally in the past.

For example, she said, kids shooting fireworks or getting in a fight in school are more likely to be charged with an offense today than before.

Then there are some juveniles who need additional services -- anger management or chemical dependency treatment, for example.

In the balance of getting the client the services they need to improve their lives, "public safety comes out at the top," said Nancy Naujokas, a probation officer and assistant director of community corrections.

Putting people on probation can be a good way to meet both needs.

Some people have a "lock 'em up mentality," said West. But probation is a "lot more cost-effective than locking people up."

It costs about $2 a day to have someone on probation in Kandiyohi County, said West. Plus, many offenders do community service work that benefits residents. "We save the county a lot of money."

Going to prison isn't always a bad thing and some offenders need to hit "rock bottom" before they can change, said Robak.

But for some people, one stint on probation is all they need to learn a lesson, said Judy TeBeest, an adult group supervisor.

Never seeing an offender again in the court system "is a success," said Angie Gort.

Seeing a former offender holding down a good job and volunteering for community events is also a success, said TeBeest.

West said probation officers frequently get thank you cards. A woman who was on her caseload 25 years ago visited West recently to talk about how her life had changed for the better.

That also makes the community better, said West.