Capping caseloads ‘not realistic’ for state’s probation officers without funds

Rep. Chris Tuck addresses the Alaska House of Representatives, March 12, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)
Rep. Chris Tuck addresses the Alaska House of Representatives, March 12, 2014. Tuck introduced a bill this session that attempts to cap the number of cases assigned to Alaska’s probation officers at 60. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

A bill in the Alaska Legislature would set a cap on caseloads for Alaska probation officers.

Anchorage Rep. Chris Tuck says the goal of the legislation is to reduce prison reentry rates, but the Department of Corrections commissioner says the proposal would not be realistic without additional funding.

When Brent Wilson started as a probation officer 10 years ago, he was managing over 100 cases. The state’s average caseload has dropped since then, but he says officers are expected to spend more time helping probationers find jobs and housing.

Quality time that Wilson says can keep ex-offenders from returning to prison.

“The more time you have to spend on any individual,” Wilson says, “I think it’s gonna pay dividends for us in the future.”

Wilson describes the job as a balancing act. One side requires a watchdog mentality to track high-risk probationers. The other demands an open-minded compassion to help offenders rehabilitate back into society. In between are the necessary duties of court visits, home inspections and piles of paperwork.

“You have to be able to multi-task, but this job really brings new meaning to that phrase,” Wilson says. “It’s not easy to plan a day and then see that plan actually happen.”

Easing the burden on probation officers is one of Anchorage Rep. Chris Tuck’s goals this session. He thinks targeting their caseloads is key to curbing prison reentry rates.

“When parolees do fall through the cracks that’s where they do end up — in prison, and prison is way more expensive than parole officers,” Tuck says.

Tuck introduced House Bill 22 to set a maximum limit of 60 cases per officer. But he says due to the state’s current budget deficit, the bill would not provide funds to hire more staff.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Ronald Taylor says capping the caseload at 60 is not realistic without increasing the budget.

“There’s some issues that we will have to work through in the caseload bill overall to ensure that that fairness is there and that balance is there for the department to be able to manage the resources appropriately,” Taylor says.

Taylor says the department has reduced the average caseload in Anchorage from 120 to 85 in the last few years by helping people get services that reduce their likelihood to reoffend, such as drug treatment and education. The number of offenders in Alaska to complete a drug treatment program has increased by more than 90 percent since 2011.

“What we’ve learned in the past is when we’ve not connected people to programming — when we’ve focused solely on the surveillance and enforcement aspect of it — that we get more failure in our system,” Taylor says.

Taylor says HB 22 does not take into account the state’s vast range of caseloads. For example, he says an officer in Sitka may have an average caseload of about 30, while an officer in Nome is handling up to 90 cases.

Eleven other states have set regulations on officer caseloads. Arizona’s cap is 65, but the probation officers in Maricopa County have a caseload cap of about 60.

“The job is not what it was 15 years ago when we were just checking off things and making sure people were doing what they were supposed to do,” says Kirsten Lewis, a probation officer in Maricopa County for the last 18 years.

She says her ideal caseload would be in the low 40s due to the more personal relationship expected between officers and offenders.

“The more we can treat them in a fair, firm and caring way, it’s a protective factor for recidivism,” Lewis says.

HB 22 had a hearing in the House State Affairs Committee Tuesday.

Committee Chairman Bob Lynn says he’s in favor of reducing caseload sizes. He compared the predicament to teacher classroom sizes — where finding the magic number that promotes efficiency is no simple task.

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