Lawrence Dedicated to Improving Lives of Probationers
By: Jessica Johnston
Lynn Stewart has been a probation officer in Lawrence County for almost 19 years, and she says her work takes her beyond the conventional 9 a.m.–5 p.m. day.
“It’s a hard job to put down. You worry about them [people on probation] still when you go home. It’s a hard job to emotionally detach from,” Stewart says.
Despite the job’s intensity, Stewart believes that everyone working in the probation department shares a common mission to help its people. From the judges that review cases to the officers that supervise probationers to the supportive staff, each person seeks to provide solutions for what are often complex social problems.
“I believe everyone who is in this job is here because they care about the people, and that’s rewarding,” Stewart says.
The department’s approach is rewarding in other ways, too. The Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (DRC) recently recognized it for its outstanding intensive-supervision probation programs.
On average, 40 percent of probationers will eventually end up in jail in Ohio, but in Lawrence County, only 28 percent of probationers end up in jail, the Huntington, WV Herald-Dispatch reports.
The extra emphasis
The essence of the probation department is to help those who have stumbled by the wayside. The Probation Department page of the Lawrence County Municipal court states that “The Probation Department further aims to provide offenders an opportunity to prove to the Court and to themselves that they are capable of living a socially acceptable life as productive and responsible members of society.”
A majority of the probation cases seen in Lawrence County are drug-related. Each case goes through an assessment performed by one of two judges, who look at the probation file and determine which program is the best fit for the person, Stewart says.
While probation isn’t a system that anyone wants to stumble into, the Lawrence County Probation Department is dedicated to bettering the lives of the people who come into their courtrooms.
That effort begins with the list of 13 rules that persons are required to follow during their stint on probation. Rules range from rule No. 4, which states, “The probationer shall make every effort to be gainfully employed at a lawful occupation,” to Rule No. 5, which states, “The probationer shall not drink any beverages with an alcohol content, or use marijuana or any drug not prescribed to him/her by a physician.”
Some of the programs are residential and require the probationer to live in a rehabilitation house with a structured daily schedule that includes house chores and pro-social activities to help them integrate back into normal life.
In less extreme cases, the individual on probation goes through a series of weekly meetings and homework assignments, Stewart says.
“In recent years, we’ve had a lot more programs to be able to place them in—residential instead of outpatient so that they can go and stay there,” Stewart said.
Higher-risk persons on probation are placed on intensive, supervised probation—which is monitored by Stewart and Officer John Sexton—for six to 12 months and then remain on regular supervised probation for the remainder of their term.
The standard amount of time a person is on probation is four years, but the longest term is up to five years in Ohio, Stewart says. The amount of time a person is on probation is determined according to their offense.
A probation sentence can get reduced based on evaluations. The sentence can be reduced by up to half the time if the person is a model probationer.
The Lawrence County probation department received a good site-visit score from the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections auditors that assess the department’s progress twice a year.
These assessments are in compliance with a grant that Lawrence County was awarded by the DRC. The grant, which Stewart directs, comes with a number of strict standards that are graded upon assessment and site-visits.
The probation department in Lawrence County has started practicing “graduated sanctions” as a way to help those on probation and add a beneficial component to supervised cases.
“Let’s say that somebody is under the influence of alcohol at their house during a home visit, instead of sending somebody to prison, there’s consequences, but we’re not going to just rush right into prison,” Chief Probation Officer Carl Bowen says. “They may have to do extra hours of community service; maybe they have to report to us more often.”
Bowen handles the majority of the follow-up consequences to graduated sanctions before the case even goes to court. He says this helps the courts, but it helps probationers as well.
“It shows that we’re willing to work with offenders because relapse is usually inevitable when it comes to addiction, and we understand that,” Bowen says.
Stewart says that although former probationers who are no longer in the system rarely return to thank department staffers, it does happen.
“It’s not as often as you might think, but when you do and you see them it is really refreshing. It’s very nice. It’s a very rewarding feeling,” Stewart says.