Top states for probation (per 100,000 adults)
Georgia: 5,570Rhode Island: 2,822Ohio: 2,706Minnesota: 2,328Michigan: 2,276National average: 1,522
DALTON, Ga. - Naked men at the door, addicts on the porch, dealer on the run. Pistol on the table; pills on the table. Meth lab upstairs. Marijuana in the floor, wafting out as the heat kicks on.
When community supervision officers Shawn Henry and Kindra Cochran tell stories about their jobs, these are the details that lead. It's weird work, tracking probationers, the people who are almost free from their old crimes.
But for all of Henry's and Cochran's interesting experiences, there are plenty of mundane days. They meet older men in cramped apartments to make sure they're still employed. They search through the mobile homes of young men in the morning, the probationers groggy from working third shift at the mill.
Cochran, who monitors probationers considered at low risk to commit other offenses, handles 100 cases. Henry, who monitors high-risk probationers, handles 75.
"You get stressed out from time to time," he said. "But it's totally manageable."
He and Cochran, who cover Whitfield and Murray counties for the Department of Community Supervision, are lucky compared to workers in other parts of Georgia. The average community supervision officer in the state manages 120-130 medium or high-risk probationers, more than twice the recommended caseload from the American Probation and Parole Association.
That's because Georgia is the No. 1 state for probation - by far. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 5,600 of every 100,000 adults in Georgia were on probation as of December 2015, the most recent date available. Georgia's rate is twice that of the No. 2 state, Rhode Island, and about 3 1/2 times the national average.
Tennessee's probation rate is 1,215 of every 100,000 adults, and Alabama's is 1,505.
"Probation officers are not only spread thin," the authors of a report by the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform wrote last month,"but also have less time to devote to those who do pose a high risk of reoffending."
The reform council recommended a couple of policies to move more people off probation and lower officers' caseloads. The policies were wrapped into a bill that unanimously passed the state Senate on March 1 and is awaiting a vote in the House.
A key part of the bill allows judges to move more probationers from active to unsupervised status after two years. Unsupervised probationers have more freedom and the officer does not have to visit them every month. The law is already on the books. But under this bill, poor probationers would no longer be required to pay back all outstanding court fines and fees.
According to the council's report, this element of the bill could impact about 28,690 people - 18 percent of the probationers now on active supervision status in Georgia.
A second element of the bill could end some longer probation sentences. If a probationer committed a nonviolent offense such as drug possession, followed all the rules of probation and paid any required money to victims, his community supervision officer would ask a judge and prosecutor after three years to dismiss the rest of that person's supervision status.
The report does not clearly state how many people would be helped by the move. A probationer can already ask a judge to dismiss a sentence, but this bill aims to make the practice more frequent.
"They're taking the burden for the initiative off the probationer and putting it on the agency," said David Dunn, the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit's public defender and a member of the reform council. "It would be done more routinely."
Cory Beggs, coordinating chief for the community supervision office in Fulton County, Ga., said the law's effectiveness still hinges on local judges. They decide whether to shorten sentences, cutting probationers loose and giving officers more time to focus on other cases.
"Some judges want people on supervision for the entire sentence," he said. "Some are open to listen to the recommendations of the community supervision officer. There is no consistent pattern across the state."
Marissa McCall Dodson, a public policy director at the Southern Center for Human Rights, said the reforms will help lower the state's probation population. But they only affect the back end - the people who are already on probation. To remove more people from the system and give officers more time with each client, she said, state leaders need to change how some judges sentence defendants.
For example, the state could decriminalize traffic and some drug offenses, so the convicted would face fines instead of jail time. And for those who can't pay the money, she said, state officials could pursue a tax refund intercept program or garnishee wages from a paycheck.
"There are a myriad of things Georgia might consider," she said. "We hope they will in 2018."
BOOTS ON THE GROUND
Probation officers manage the hinges of the criminal justice system. They work with clients who are often in and out of jail for complicated reasons like poverty and mental illness. At the same time, they deal with clients who are close to freedom, who are trying to put one mistake behind them.
In Dalton, Cochran said, the key to the job is showing up, every month. You get to know the clients, and their families and friends. You learn what they're capable of, good and bad. The probationer's mother will start to trust you. She'll tell you if her son is drinking again. Or the probationer will tell you why he keeps getting fired, that he doesn't understand how to earn a boss' trust.
Henry said another key is timing. You don't want to show up on the second Monday of every month. They need to know you can show up at any point: 6 on a Tuesday night, 7:30 on a Saturday morning. The threat of your presence holds them accountable.
"They're going to be less likely to have drugs out," Cochran said. "They're going to be less likely to harbor guns. It puts a dent in their criminal behavior."
But building a rapport and a rhythm is not easy. Beggs said his officers in Atlanta each have caseloads of more than 200. This cuts down on time they can spend with each probationer, as well as the important people in that person's life. And when you don't have that time, you don't have that trust. They might think of you as a police officer. They might not admit they're struggling until they're back in jail, again.
How did Georgia get to this point, with 200,000 probationers?
"That's a loaded question," Beggs said. "That's an extremely loaded question."
He believes it's the result of the tough-on-crime principles that swept the country under Richard Nixon and didn't relent for decades. Dodson pointed to the privatization of criminal justice industries, including misdemeanor probation, which is still in place in most of Georgia. This created "perverse incentives" to suck more people into court and make them pay probation fees, he said.
William Burrell, a former probation director in New Jersey who now consults with other state agencies across the country, wrote a position paper on officer caseloads in 2007. He said the number of probationers someone can handle depends on what type of clientss they are. But if you're the officer for medium- or high-risk probationers, he believes you should not have more than 50 clients.
Each visit with a probationer should last about 30 minutes, he said. You should know their parents, their children, their spouses, their friends. You should be able to help them practice for job interviews. Then, eventually, in theory, you should be able to leave them alone after a couple of years.
With larger caseloads, Burrell said, even dreaming of that scenario isn't possible.
"You end up being reduced to a checker, basically," he said.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.