On the street with an Illinois parole officer

THE drippy, gray morning has not dampened Royal Fulton's spirits. He is a tall man, dressed in a suit and tie that contrast loudly with the neighborhoods he tours. His voice is low and even. His beat, a 21.4-square-mile chunk of south-central Chicago.

Parts of this area are steeped in crime and poverty. And it is Mr. Fulton's job, as parole agent for the State of Illinois, to keep an eye on released prison inmates returning to the community.

Across the country, much has been made about inundated courts and overcrowded prisons. But little has been said about parole. Yet it is here that, like a floodplain downstream from a swollen river, the surging prison population will eventually be dumped.

Here in Wabash district, Fulton and three colleagues have charge of nearly 500 parolees. It is a crushing load.

Steve is one of those disappointing parolees. Fulton stops at police headquarters to look up Steve's arrest records, and he confirms a startling fact: Steve has been arrested four times in 15 days on minor charges. Fulton's duty is clear. He will notify police to pick Steve up and will request that the prison review board revoke his parole.

The incident reflects on the state of the criminal justice system.

Maybe slow paper work kept Fulton from being notified of Steve's arrests. In any case, he caught up with the last one only because Steve spent nearly two weeks in county jail; Fulton routinely scans jail records. If Fulton was unaware of the arrests, the judges involved had the opposite problem of not knowing Steve was on parole. They dealt lightly with him at pretrial hearings - possession of a burglary tool and criminal trespass. Only after his fourth arrest was bond set.

Criminals might spend a day in jail waiting for their pretrial hearings. Then , judges often dismiss minor cases, considering the time already spent in jail to be an adequate sentence.

In Steve's case, trial dates were set after each arrest. But defendants often ignore them, Fulton says, and the warrant issued has little meaning unless the defendant is caught later for some other crime.

But the system has few alternatives. Judges have more serious cases to deal with - and they can't very well sentence small-time thieves to Illinois prisons when the system has 200 more inmates than prison spaces to put them in. (That figure would be even higher if the state didn't lease prison space from out of state as well as in county jails.) Probation - supervision in the community instead of in prison - is too overloaded to deter many criminals, he says.

By noon Fulton is driving his white Buick down South State Street. It is lined with tall bleak buildings that sit in sets of three against the dirty gray sky. These are ''the projects'' - holding the largest concentration of public-housing tenants in the United States - and havens of crime.

He stops the car at one unit and, with his visitors, rides the elevator to the top, the 16th floor. If he were making rounds today, he might visit three parolees who live in similar projects. They are dangerous places. On each floor, the apartments are lined, motel-like, by an outdoor walkway, enclosed by a thick steel mesh - because, Fulton says, tenants used to dump trash and furniture over the railings. The complex echoes with the laughter of schoolchildren, who are home for lunch.

Timing is critical in this job of drudgery and danger.

With a caseload of 100 parolees - fewer than in some Chicago districts, but twice the number experts consider optimal - there is not much individual attention. For their first 30 days out of prison, all are rated ''high risk'' - which means the agent must meet with them three times during the month - at least once in the home. Average home visit? Fifteen minutes, Fulton says.

It's a kind of contract. Do well and fewer visits are needed. Good parolees might be discharged by the prison review board in six to 18 months, depending on their crimes. But get arrested and, guilty or not, you're likely headed back to prison.

As a practical matter, paper work usually keeps Fulton in the office all morning. But there are other reasons for making home visits in the afternoons.

The projects can be dangerous at midmorning, he says. Few people are around. So he tries to make visits at noon or after school. Dress helps, too. Fulton wears a suit to signal that he's a nonresident on official business. Just in case, a .357 Magnum revolver rides on his left hip under his coat, along with six extra rounds of ammunition and a pair of handcuffs.

Illinois parole officers are armed and can make arrests in some cases. It's an efficient process but also an enduring contradiction. The agent who arrests a parolee also may be the one originally entrusted with helping him. ''You have to wear many hats,'' Fulton says. ''Social worker, job developer, psychologist. . . .''

After lunch in a safer neighborhood, Fulton drives to the suburbs. In 12 years he has seen a broad range of cases. There's the woman arrested for possession of heroin who started secretarial school while on parole and now works downtown. There are convicts he tried to help while in juvenile parole that he now sees as adult parolees. In the suburbs, though, is one of Fulton's most difficult cases.

Ed is a dumpy, inoffensive-looking man who has spent almost eight years behind bars for attempted murder. Four days after being paroled, Ed nearly killed himself accidentally, apparently suffering from a mental delusion. Now he sits in a mental health clinic.

Fulton reassures him that he's healing well, listens attentively to his psychiatrist, then promises to visit next week. Outside he recalls his shock upon learning of the accident. ''I was very, very much upset,'' he says. ''You can't walk around and not let these things bother you.''

This is quite a change for a man who sold heating and air-conditioning systems for Sears, Roebuck & Co. 12 years ago. He wanted to help people, he recalls, so he took a $4,000-a-year pay cut and started in the juvenile division of Illinois parole. ''I've never regretted it since,'' he says.

But to an observer the frustrations seem overwhelming. The caseloads are too high and so are the failure rates.

One survey shows that 1 in 4 paroled Illinois inmates will return to prison. Says one critic: ''Parole is one of those important creations of the system which has not been much appreciated or been given much support.''

Earlier cuts in state funds for adult parole in Illinois - officially called Adult Community Supervision - have been largely restored. But federal cuts have reduced the number of community resources available, especially jobs programs, says Ray Clark, Wabash district supervisor. Even Fulton concedes his district is only ''moderately successful.''

But, he adds, ''you really get a feeling, under most circumstances, that you're really helping people.''

By 4:45 p.m. Fulton is back at his desk. He has discharges for two of his parolees, which he will personally deliver this weekend or perhaps Monday, a holiday. These are bright spots in a gloomy picture. And, he adds, ''I can see our situation as remaining pretty much the same.''

The Illinois governor's 1985 budget calls for an extra $400,000 for parole and the addition of 26 parole agents to the current staff of some 125. Illinois is also one of the states experimenting with tough probation programs as a cheaper alternative to prison. But the main thrust here is a roughly $315 million building program to double the number of prison spaces since 1977.

Are more prisons the answer to the crime problem?

Fulton sees no other way. But officials at the Safer Foundation, a nonprofit organization for ex-offenders, point out that their programs are several times cheaper than building and maintaining prisons.

In the middle are observers like Harold Thomas, parole superintendent for Area I (Chicago) and a former Chicago police officer.

''I am not soft on crime,'' he says, but he believes that not all nonviolent criminals should go to prison. ''Once you get in there, you learn to protect yourself. And once (the criminal) comes out, it's very hard then to reintegrate him into a peaceful community.''

Punishment is needed, but perhaps the kind of punishment a parent gives a child, says Tom Mangrum, a former officer of the American Probation and Parole Association.

''People discipline their children because they care about them,'' he says. In corrections, ''we just do the spanking.''

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