Lawrence County was recently recognized by the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (DRC) for its outstanding intensive-supervision probation programs.
On average, 40 percent of people on probation will eventually end up in jail in Ohio. In Lawrence County, only 28 percent of probationers (as defined by chapter 2951 of the Ohio Revised Code) end up incarcerated according to the Huntington, WV Herald-Dispatch.
The courthouse in Ironton is in the center of the little town, surrounded by a couple of churches and a few restaurants. The amount of police cars parked outside the court house may alarm unknowing passersby.
On the third floor of the courthouse, down a little hallway that opens up to a grand hallway sits the entrance to the Lawrence County Probation Department office. Seven officers and two assistant staff members sit behind the reflective doors.
“I believe everyone who is in this job is here because they care about the people, and that’s rewarding,” Officer Lynn Stewart says.
Stewart has been a probation officer in Lawrence County for almost 19 years. Her work day looks a little different every day; it’s ever changing. It’s not necessarily a 9 a.m.–5 p.m. job.
“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.
Cases and Counseling
A majority of the probation cases in Lawrence County are drug related. Each case goes through an assessment performed by one of two judges who look at probation files and determine in which program a person would best fit, Stewart says.
Some of the programs are residential rather than outpatient and require the probationer to live in a rehabilitation house with a structured daily schedule that includes household chores and pro-social activities. This is intended to help the person living in the home integrate back into normal life.
“A lot of times, being positive and telling them ‘good job’ goes a long way,” says Lawrence County Chief Probation Officer Carl Bowen, who has been with the department for 21 years.
In less extreme cases, the individual 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.
Officer John Sexton leads a program called “Thinking for a Change,” in which he has meetings with lower-risk probationers to help them get on a path to recovery.
Higher-risk persons on probation are placed on intensive, supervised probation—which is monitored by Stewart and Sexton—for six to 12 months and then remain on regularly 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.
A probation sentence can get reduced based on evaluations throughout the sentence. The sentence can be reduced by up to half its total time if the person is a model probationer–something officers in the department work diligently to help those in the system be.
The Lawrence County Probation Department received a good site-visit score from the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections auditors earlier this year. The auditors assess the department’s progress twice a year.
The assessments are done 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.
“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,” 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 probationers that are no longer in the system don’t often come back to thank those in the department that helped them along the way, but it does happen on some occasions.
“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.