Probation and parole officers brace for bigger caseloads

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Louisiana legislators passed dozens of laws this year that will overhaul the criminal justice system. The goal is to reduce Louisiana's prison population by 10 percent over the next 10 years. That means shorter sentences, more offenders eligible for parole, and earlier release dates. But lawmakers failed to give any extra resources to the state office that's going to have to absorb those additional people.
Probation and Parole is a division within the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. It's an office that's already understaffed and underpaid.
"Our officers start out making $14.45 an hour. That's not a livable wage," Gerri Garon said.
Gerron oversees the Baton Rouge district and manages 38 probation and parole officers. 22 of those 38 have less than five years of experience.
"Our caseloads are averaging about 150 per officer. Ideally 90 to 120 would be perfect," she explained.
Jamie Oertel knows the stories of all 150 of her offenders. Officers make regular home visits to make sure their offenders are following court orders to stay out of jail and become productive citizens.
"What's unique to Probation and Parole is you are helping them learn a new way of life in order not to commit crime, and allowing them to be monitored and helped back into society after they have made a mistake," Oertel said.
With eight years of experience, Oertel is a rare breed. P&P officers face the same dangers as other law enforcement, often working alone and arresting offenders who will try anything to avoid going back to jail. Yet P&P officers are paid far less than traditional police officers.
Among the top 100 law enforcement agencies in Louisiana, the starting salary for an Adult Probation and Parole officers ranks 74th at $30,000. After the state pays for standard academy training, many are eventually poached by other police agencies. The Dept. of Public Safety and Corrections estimates that officer turnover in the past three years has cost Louisiana nearly $15 million in training, salary, and benefits.
"We had an officer that was here for less than a year," Garon recalled. "He left to go to work for another state agency and got an $18,000 a year raise to start."
Probation and parole officers lobbied unsuccessfully this year for a raise beyond the standard cost of living. Administrators argued that criminal justice reform measures would be more effective if the proper work force was in place.
"It's frustrating, very frustrating," Geron said. "We anticipate that there will be more releases. We'll have to see it play out once they apply (the new laws) to those offenders that are serving time, but we expect our caseloads to rise."
As they've always done, officers in the Baton Rouge division are doing the best they can with what they have. Oertel recently helped implement a program designed to boost morale among officers. It's the love of the work that keep many of them on the job.
"You're helping people that don't have help anywhere else, and that's a rare opportunity," Oertel said.
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