No one denies that something must change, but coming up with solutions may not be easy.

AUBURN – Alan Roy leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms and recited his stats.

He says he has been arrested 48 arrests since he turned 18 five years ago.

The first time he got out of jail, he was sent back a week later for smoking pot. Since then, he has been in and out six times – sometimes for committing new crimes, most times for violating his bail or probation.

Over the years, the 23-year-old has been assigned to at least five different probation officers.

“I have the second longest criminal record in Androscoggin County,” he said. “And that is only because the other guy is in his 50s or something.

“I’m on file E, going on file F,” he continued, referring to the number of court files labeled with his name.

Roy was serving the end of a six-month sentence in Androscoggin County Jail for theft by unauthorized taking and burglary of a motor vehicle.

He was due to get out in a month, at which point he would be put back on probation for another two years.

After defending his latest charges – “It wasn’t even a vehicle, it was a beer truck” – he swore that this time would be different.

“I’m done with this place. I don’t want to come back,” he said. “I’m going to try my hardest.”

Local probation officers aren’t as hopeful.

‘Waste of time’

They say Roy and others like him are why their caseloads are nearly double the national average, why they can only afford to supervise most clients an average of five minutes a month and why they are feeling frustrated with the system.

“Probation has become an easy dumping ground,” said Mike Simoneau, a local probation officer. “A lot of cases are really just a waste of time.”

In addition to supervising clients who violate probation no matter what the probation officers do, they have clients who are so mentally ill they don’t even understand what it means to be on probation.

In those situations, the main focus is making sure the clients are taking their medication.

Probation Officer Pauline Gudas has one client who forgets to eat. The last time Gudas visited the woman, she had only a box of cereal and powdered milk.

After making arrangements to get food, Gudas spent an hour counting the client’s prescription pills to make sure she hadn’t taken too many or too few.

“I’m not an RN,” Gudas said. “I don’t have a medical degree.”

Murderers to thieves

Everyone from murderers to petty thieves gets probation. For some people, it’s in lieu of jail time. Others serve split sentences, a term behind bars followed by a term of probation.

While on probation, people must follow strict rules set by judges and they must meet regularly with probation officers.

Some are barred from drinking alcohol. Others are ordered to stay away from certain people, including their victims or children under a certain age.

Many are required to take special classes or to get therapy for underlying problems, such as substance abuse.

Justice Ellen Gorman knows that the probation officers are buried in cases. But, she said, the current system doesn’t give her many alternatives.

Unless people are severely mentally ill, to the point that they did not understand they were committing a crime, the state’s mental institution is usually not an option.

“I understand the problem,” Gorman said. “But if I want to give someone a chance of rehabilitation, probation has to be part of it.”

No time

In addition to rehabilitating convicted criminals, probation is meant to protect public safety by keeping criminals under close watch while they get their lives in order.

Simoneau’s entire caseload is made up of sex offenders.

He has heard rumors that one of his high-risk clients may be up to his old habits. Simoneau would like to follow the client around for a day or two.

But, with the expectation of doing 92 home visits a month in four different counties, he hasn’t been able to find time for surveillance.

Nobody – not the judges who order probation, not the prosecutors who ask for it, not the state officials who oversee it – denies that something must change to alleviate the probation officers’ caseloads.

The problem is coming up with affordable solutions that everyone can live with.

“We’re not going to make everybody happy,” said Capt. John Lebel, administrator of the Androscoggin County Jail, where about 30 percent of inmates are serving time for violating the terms of their probation. “We have to work within our means.”

Solutions

The overloaded probation system was one of several problems presented to a 17-member commission assembled by the Maine Legislature last summer.

The commission was given six months to come up with ways to improve the sentencing, supervision, management and incarceration of prisoners.

The group’s main goal was to find solutions to the severe overcrowding in Maine’s jails and prisons, but the members concluded in a report released in January that the problem in the jails is directly related to the problems with probation.

“The probation system is overused, but it is overused only because other alternatives aren’t available or they aren’t being utilized,” said Don Allen, a former commissioner of the state Department of Corrections and the chairman of the commission.

About a third of the inmates in Maine’s county jails are doing time for violating the terms of their probation. The commission concluded that reducing the number of offenders sentenced to probation and shortening the length of probation would eventually alleviate overcrowding in the jails.

The commission came up with several solutions.

Its recommendations include removing probation as an option for most misdemeanor crimes and reducing the maximum length of probation for all crimes.

The commission also suggested encouraging probation officers to terminate cases earlier than scheduled. And it proposed enacting alternative programs that would require low-risk offenders to meet the requirements of probation without regular supervision.

‘Can’t have both’

Local lawyers, judges and probation officers had mixed reactions to the commission’s ideas.

District Attorney Norm Croteau doesn’t see the benefit of removing probation for misdemeanor crimes.

“We need more options,” he said. “That would only limit my decisions.”

Justice Gorman wants alternatives but she is skeptical about placing people on probation without supervision. She worries about public safety.

As for the probation officers, they don’t see how eliminating or reducing probation sentences would have any significant impact on the situation in the jails.

“You can’t have both,” Simoneau said. “The reason that the crime rate is going down is that the criminals are in jail.”

Simoneau and other officers want judges and state prosecutors to be more selective about the people put on probation.

People such as Alan Roy, who violate probation two or three times, should be given straight sentences in jail or prison, they say. The officers also are frustrated with supervising people who are on probation simply because they owe restitution.

Probation Officer Jonathan Pyska has one client who was charged with ordering magazine subscriptions under false names. She owes thousands of dollars to the magazines and she likely will be on probation until she clears her debt.

“If they are just making payments, they don’t need to be on probation,” Pyska said. “Something has got to give down the road.”

Mentally ill

One problem that everyone agreed on, however, is the lack of options for people with mental illness.

“We have nothing for these people,” Croteau said. “There are no facilities for them, and the jails can’t handle them. Guess who is left: the probation officers.”

On a recent Thursday night, Simoneau visited two clients with severe mental problems.

One client’s room was so trashed that Simoneau could hardly open the door. Several prescription bottles were scattered on the floor. Simoneau told the wide-eyed man to ask his doctor for a pill container with sections for each day, then he reminded the man to change his sheets and straighten up his room.

The man looked at him blankly and nodded his head.

The other client, a convicted rapist who attacked his last probation officer, was returning from the store when Simoneau arrived. The man didn’t seem nervous by the surprise visit.

Instead, he opened his grocery bags with the excitement of a child to show Simoneau that he bought a new kind of cereal.

Decades ago, both men likely would have been sent to Pineland Center. The state-run mental institution officially shut down in 1995, but its role in serving the mentally ill diminished in the 1970s.

That is when state officials embarked on an ambitious experiment – known as deinstitutionalization – to return all but the most severely mentally ill people to the community.

Although state funding shifted from the institutions to the community, some officials, including local probation officers, believe many people were left behind in the transition, and not enough has been done to make sure that they are getting the services they need.

‘The root of the problem’

Maine has never had a good system for dealing with mentally ill criminals, said Allen, who headed the Department of Corrections from 1976 to 1995.

Allen and the other commission members discussed the problem and talked briefly about big ideas, such as building another mental health institution.

But, with so much work to do, the commission members decided to spend their six months coming up with quicker solutions.

As part of their report, however, they asked the Legislature to give them more money and time to study the mental health issue. The Legislature hasn’t voted yet on whether to grant the commission more time and money.

“This problem has lingered far too long,” Allen said. “We want to give it our undivided attention. We really need to get at the root of the problem, and solve it once and for all.”


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