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Probation Department in Michigan finds volunteers make fine officers.

How much responsibility should correctional volunteers be given? At the 46th District Court Probation Department in Michigan, we have found that with proper screening and training, community volunteers can capably supervise low-risk, non-violent first offenders. A volunteer probation officer program is an effective way to enhance a probation department and involve the community in the criminal justice system.

The probation department, located north of Detroit in Oakland County, Mich., serves a caseload of about 1,100 offenders. The caseload is covered by a probation supervisor, three probation officers and a staff of volunteers and student interns who assist the probation officers.

The VPO Program

Recruitment and training are the pillars of our volunteer probation officer program. We usually conduct recruitment by advertising in local newspapers. Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer probation officer, or VPO, must complete an application for volunteer service. The department screens applications carefully before scheduling interviews. In general, we look for people with good communication skills, enthusiasm, a desire to assist others and a commitment to the community.

Jana Olivarez, the probation supervisor, and Gertie Garber, our volunteer coordinator, then interview the most qualified volunteer candidates. The final step is a background investigation, which includes criminal history and driving record checks.

Our volunteers reflect a cross-section of the communities we serve. Current volunteers include a psychologist, a speech pathologist, a postal worker, a homemaker, a retired auto worker and a furniture store owner. The court also recruits volunteers from the private sector. Many local employers allow employees to work for community agencies during their normal work day as part of a corporate community involvement program.

Our volunteer probation program normally has 20 to 25 VPOs at any given time. New volunteers are recruited when the number drops below 20. Turnover is not a major problem; many volunteers have been with the program more than five years. Garber, who is herself a volunteer, has served the court since 1978.

Before volunteers are assigned cases, they attend an orientation and training session. The session, conducted by Olivarez and Garber, lasts from four to six hours. It includes a review of the department's policies and procedures, descriptions of situations volunteers are likely to encounter and role playing scenarios. VPOs receive a training manual that is updated annually. We also have regular in-service and occasional off-site training for all VPOs and staff.

VPOs handle about 15 percent of the probation department's total caseload. Each volunteer generally supervises seven to 10 low-risk, non-violent first offenders. (Our full-time officers handle about 250 offenders.) Garber attempts to match VPOs to probationers based on volunteers' educational level, occupation and career training.

For a volunteer program to be successful, it should not create more work for the paid staff or place additional demands on an already heavy workload. This is one reason VPOs are given lower risk, non-violent offenders.

Volunteers who have been in the program for several years and who have received advanced training are assigned more complex or difficult cases. By developing expertise on particular types of cases, VPOs learn how to handle their caseload and provide the best possible service. We have found that offenders generally do not differentiate between volunteer and paid probation officers. VPOs say they enjoy volunteering because it puts them in touch with what is going on in the community and gives them a sense of pride in their work.

Student Intern Program

We also have a student intern program that complements the VPO program. Students are recruited from colleges and universities throughout Southeast Michigan, including the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Oakland University and Wayne State University. Most are criminal justice or pre-law students:

Interns, who are asked to commit to a minimum of nine months of service, work up to 20 hours a week. We usually have one or two interns at a time. They are not paid for their work but do receive college credits toward their degrees and valuable hands-on experience working with offenders.

Interns conduct pre-sentence investigations, handle caseloads averaging 30 offenders and help the probation officers. They also assist with record keeping and other special projects.

Offender Community Service Program

In addition to VPOs and college students, the department uses volunteers to supervise its community service program. The sentencing option of ordering offenders to perform community service has grown in popularity in recent years, placing an additional personnel burden on the probation department and the court.

The program has grown steadily since its inception in 1982. Community service is now ordered in about 80 percent of the cases the probation department supervises.

The program is directed by Al Cliette, a retired U.S. Army colonel who volunteers 16 to 20 hours a week in the probation department. Among other duties, he is responsible for establishing contacts with the non-profit, community agencies the program works with.

During Cliette's five years with the court, the list of court-approved nonprofit community agencies has grown from 20 to 180. He contacts each agency every six months to ensure that the agency listing, particularly the name of the contact person, is accurate.

Examples of the court's community service agencies are churches, synagogues, hospitals, the Michigan Humane Society, the Michigan Cancer Foundation and the American Red Cross. Typical community service work includes office or clerical duties, general maintenance and work with youth groups such as the YMCA or YWCA.

In Michigan, courts are not required to provide liability insurance for offenders sentenced to community service. Agencies that agree to accept offenders for community service are responsible for handling injury claims.

In 1992, offenders performed about 58,000 hours of community service work, more than three times as many hours as in 1988. Cliette logs and forwards all correspondence and completion information from the community service agencies to the probation officers. He also helps probation officers document the number of community service hours offenders work.

Cliette thoroughly explains the responsibilities and procedures of the community service program to the offenders and is available to help them with their paperwork. We have found that this assistance increases the level of offender compliance.

Volunteers and student interns are an integral part of the 46th District Court Probation Department. Their overall level of service to the court has been excellent. Although much time and effort has been devoted to establishing and operating our volunteer programs, we have found that they benefit the department and increase the community's understanding of the correctional system.

VPOs With Juveniles by Raymond Lescher

The Ramsey County Community Corrections Department in St. Paul, Minn., has a strong volunteer program called Volunteers in Corrections (VIC) that emphasizes working with juveniles.

Most of the program's 200 volunteers are matched with youths at three juvenile probation branch offices and in two juvenile institutions--the Juvenile Detention Center and Boys Totem Town, a residential treatment facility for 65 youths ages 13 through 18. In addition, some VIC participants work with adults on probation or parole, at a local minimum security work facility, and with families in family court.

Most of the work with juveniles is in a traditional one-on-one role. Volunteers build trusting relationships with adolescents and help them follow court conditions such as school attendance, financial restitution and community service. Other important duties include providing substance abuse and family counseling, helping them find jobs, tutoring, and offering advice. Volunteers also have set up no-smoking programs, arts and crafts classes and an African American mentor program.

The immense power of adult role models giving freely of their time is a powerful influence in the lives of juvenile offenders. Frank Hosch, superintendent at Boys Totem Town, has 50 volunteers in his facility. "They are invaluable," he says. "Their contributions of experience, expertise and time have allowed for expanded programniing and services to be made available to residents here."

Ramsay County first began using correctional volunteers in October 1970, when six men and women attended a three-hour orientation. Since then the program has grown immensely. The 99th group of volunteers recently underwent orientation, which now lasts 12 hours. In nearly 23 years, more than 2,000 citizens have made the one-year commitment, which includes a minimum of two hours of weekly participation.

In 1987, VIC'S advisory board began fundraising to provide scholarships for tuition and book costs to current and former residents who wanted to continue their education past high school. So far, 44 scholarships totaling more than $17,000 have been granted to students at area colleges, junior colleges and trade and vocational schools.

The remarkable service provided by volunteers hasn't gone unnoticed. In 1992, the Minnesota Corrections Association honored the volunteers with its prestigious President's Award and President George Bush named the program as his 939th Point of Light. And this past April, VIC was awarded the International Association of Justice Volunteers' Creative Criminal Justice Award.

Raymond Lescher is the manager of Volunteers in Corrections Inc., a non-profit agency that works with the Ramsey Country Community Corrections Department in St. Paul, Minn.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; volunteer probation officer program
Author:Smith, Brian M.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Aug 1, 1993
Words:1490
Previous Article:Volunteers make a big difference inside a maximum security prison.
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