Parole officer's new beat: on the street

In Burlington, Vt., midnight stings send a message to wayward parolees:

As the squad cars pulled up, a probation officer saw Tess Devino run into Rasputin's, a bar here in downtown Burlington. He figured she was sounding the alarm that the cops were on their way.

Ms. Devino and a companion then lit out down the street, but not fast enough. The probation officer and a cop caught up to her. She cursed as they clicked handcuffs to her wrists behind her back. Her crime: violating her furlough.

Like most of the estimated 3 million Americans on probation, parole, or furlough, Devino didn't expect to run into her probation officer at a bar close to midnight on a Thursday. But in Burlington, offenders are quickly learning to expect the unexpected.

At a time when most probation officers across the country are tied to their desks, Burlington and a handful of cities across the country are getting them out on the streets alongside local police.

The aim is to ensure that offenders take the restrictions of their probation seriously - and ultimately to make them responsible citizens rather than repeat offenders.

The idea originated several years ago in Boston in a highly acclaimed crackdown on juvenile crime called Night Light. It's quickly becoming a key element in an nascent effort to reform a criminal-justice system that Americans increasingly say is failing to do anything successfully other than lock people up.

Vermont got that message early, and now is a kind of petri dish for reform.

It's the first state to commit to shifting its entire criminal-justice system from a simple punishment toward ensuring that communities and crime victims believe real justice has been served. And that criminals are made accountable to the people they've harmed.

Last Thursday's midnight raids on drinking establishments were just the latest sign of this effort to transform the way the Vermont Department of Corrections does business.

"We were just responding to our community," says Gail LeBlanc, superintendent of probation in Chittenden County.

Last spring, people in Burlington's Old North End like "Ma" Gestner were furious. They believed that too many people on probation were getting "dumped" into their low-income community.

"When they're out here dealing their drugs, I'm the one that has to come out and yell at 'em," she says, sitting in a chair in front of her apartment on North Street. Officials "don't do enough about 'em."

Her complaint stemmed partly from reform efforts already under way. Facing an ever-growing prison population, Vermont officials in recent years devised innovative alternatives to incarceration. Judges who once chose prison or probation could now choose pre-approved furlough, a form of house arrest, and community-supervised sentence, which includes lots of treatment.

As a result, many more offenders began landing in the neighborhood. And they got increased supervision and more treatment than ever before. The local probation office now has a high school and offers intensive alcohol treatment, domestic-violence education, and sex-offender aftercare. Field-service units started making regular, unannounced house calls at the homes of probationers. But after 11 p.m., when the last shift went off duty, many offenders still felt they were free to play. And they did.

"It's not hard to figure out our schedule," says Ms. LeBlanc, the superintendent.

So this summer, Burlington probation officials made a visit to Boston to see how Night Light worked. They picked up the basic philosophy and created a program to fit their own community. They went on their first nighttime visits to homes and bars on July 30.

"The first couple times we showed up, they were like, 'Why are you here and what are you doing?' " says Michael Touchette, the community corrections officer who supervised last week's raids. "We've actually had a couple of probationers tell us, 'You can't do this....' But we can and we are."

The word is now out that if you're on probation or parole in Burlington and surrounding communities you had better shape up. But in the long run, what LeBlanc and the other Vermont corrections officials hope clients come away with is a realization that they're part of their community and have a responsibility to become productive members.

Ms. Gestner is taking a wait-and-see attitude. But police and probation officials are determined to win her and the rest of the community over.

They plan to open a neighborhood "Cop Shop" where people can drop by, air grievances, ask for help, or just chat. "Working hand in hand with the community is going to be almost a full-time job, it really is," says corrections officer Touchette.

As for Devino, at the time of this writing, she was back in jail.

She is serving a one- to three-year sentence for grand larceny, but had been allowed out on furlough. She was supposed to be home and sober. Instead she was out carousing with a blood alcohol level that was almost twice the legal limit.

"I think she blew her chance," Touchette says. "She should have been home."

*Second of two parts. The first ran in yesterday's paper.

Vermont corrections officers hope parolees learn that they're part of their community.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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