LONGMONT, COLO. — James Saint John raps purposefully on the rust-colored apartment door and then steps aside, careful to remain out of a potential line of fire. Dressed in plainclothes, Officer Saint John might at first glance be taken for someone just visiting a friend. But beneath his winter jacket, he carries a semiautomatic pistol, two pairs of handcuffs, and a two-way police radio. He is a parole officer making an unannounced visit to one of his "charges." He arrives prepared for anything. "Impulsiveness is a hallmark of criminal behavior," he says. "You're dealing with people who already have broken the rules repeatedly." Saint John performs one of the most important - and overworked - jobs in the US criminal-justice system. At a time when prison populations are swelling and Americans are demanding tougher sanctions for criminals, parole officers are finding the number of newly released inmates they oversee rising exponentially. And that has put their performance under greater scrutiny. Ultimately, how well parole officers perform their jobs helps determine whether an inmate becomes a repeat offender and returns to jail - or is able to become a productive member of society. The crunch on time and labor is nowhere more apparent than here in Colorado. The parolee population has swelled faster than in any other state, and it is predicted to double by 2004. With just 75 parole officers covering the state, the average caseload for a parole officer has hit 80 - well above 60, the number recommended by state guidelines. Colorado's boom in parolees "Most of what comes in is going back out," observes Liz McDonough, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC), which oversees the state parole division. The recent boom in parolees here has been made particularly acute because of a 1993 law imposing mandatory parole on every convict leaving the state prison system. Previously, parole was required only for eligible convicts who opted for a "conditional release" from prison. But corrections officials found that a growing number of prisoners were choosing to serve out their sentences, bypassing supervision. So the state legislature made parole mandatory for every released prisoner, for at least one year. Despite the increased workload, parole officers support the new law. "You're trying to prevent crime from happening in the first place," says Saint John, who for the past 14 years has been supervising parolees as a member of Colorado's Northeast Parole Operations office. "I don't think people should be released from prison without supervision." Saint John was a sheriff's deputy for several years before becoming a parole officer, and he was drawn to his current job by a longing to prevent crime. "It's not just arresting people," he says. "At least you have a fighting chance to protect public safety and rehabilitate someone." Prioritizing Yet with the caseloads state parole officers now carry, they can offer only limited supervision to parolees. "When you're handling caseloads like this, you have to prioritize," says Tim Griffin, a CDOC parole officer training supervisor. "You have to focus on your high-risk offenders, and juggle things. And you hope it doesn't backfire." For this reason, correction officials are asking the state legislature to hire 18 additional parole officers this year and next, carrying an annual price tag of about $1.75 million. Supporters of the plan note that it's less expensive than the cost of incarceration. The state spends $2,250 per year on an average parolee, while it costs an average of $24,232 per year to lock up an inmate in a Colorado prison. In many cases, parolees are simply asked to become productive members of society: They must retain steady employment, keep a stable home address, and obey laws. For some parolees, however, there may be special conditions, such as mandatory substance-abuse or sex-offender treatment. And under a parole agreement, former convicts can't possess firearms, must pay court-ordered restitution or fines, and may need to submit to random drug tests. They also must report to their parole officer regularly - at least weekly for high-risk parolees. It's this structure that helps many parolees turn their lives around, Saint John says. "Parole makes them accountable, and that helps stop their impulsiveness," he says. Most former convicts don't reoffend while on parole, and some even ask Saint John to extend their parole, convinced that it alone can keep them straight. Many different roles Helping parolees, though, means striking a balance between the sometimes conflicting roles of cop, counselor, detective, and mentor. Mastering the art of which note to accentuate at any moment is a matter of judgment and experience, says Saint John. It can also spell the difference between whether a parolee becomes a success story or a reoffender. "You have to be careful. You aim for cooperation, but you also have to know when to get tough with someone," he says. "You're not their friend, but you listen to their problems. You might be the only friendly contact they have." For Saint John, no day is typical, since crises tend to arise unannounced. On this day, the pressing matter involves tracking down a fugitive parolee - a newly released inmate who has disappeared without notice. Then there are the usual tasks: investigating suspected violations, combing through towering stacks of paperwork, and home visits - among other things. Back at the suburban apartment here in Longmont, Colo., a woman finally responds to the knock at the door. Wearing an oversized T-shirt and jeans, she seems delighted to see Saint John and invites him in, apologizing for her messy home. The odor of an unchanged cat-litter box clings to the air, the kitchen sink is piled with unwashed dishes, and stains mar the carpet. Saint John makes polite conversation. "How are things going? How's your son doing?" he asks, almost paying more attention to how she answers rather than what she says. "You look better than the last time I was here," he says in a matter-of-fact tone. Threat of prison Last time Saint John arrived here unannounced, he had caught the woman smoking marijuana. Another such lapse, and she is very likely headed back to prison, a fact she well understands. Without such sanctions, the woman admits she would probably yield to the temptation to do drugs again. But the threat of random drug tests is keeping her drug-free, she says. "I'm protecting myself now, not protecting the drugs." Later, driving back to the office in his unmarked Ford Taurus, Saint John echoes her sentiments. He is convinced that the threat of consequences - not just repeated warnings - is what holds the power to turn an offender's life around. "We've got probation's failures," he says. "You can't let people keep violating probation over and over without sending them to prison. You've got to have enforcement. Prison does get people's attention, and some of these people will tell you that. They say to me, 'You should have sent me to prison the first time I broke the law, and I would have gotten it.' "