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JOAN WICKERSHAM

On probation, at a turning point

A Friday morning in the Suffolk County Probation Department. “Daniel,” a man in his late 20s who was convicted several years ago for drug trafficking, is here checking in with his probation officer. She’s the second one he’s had, and he’s doing well. “This one is really on top of her game,” he tells Chief Probation Officer Pamerson Ifill, who is interviewing him as part of a training exercise. “She said to me right at the beginning, ‘If you don’t mess up, I’ll be nice. But if you do mess up, I’m gonna be mean.’ ”

Daniel is working 40 to 55 hours a week at a fast food restaurant, has shown up for all his required check-ins (at first he was put on maximum supervision, coming in every 14 days; now, toward the end of his probation, he’s down to once a month), and paid his $65 monthly probation fees. “It wasn’t easy, but it helped me keep to a routine and a budget.”

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Probation. It’s a time when an offender’s life can go either way. When I spent a few days hanging around the Probation Department recently, I saw a combination of dedication and realism. The odds are tough, and so are the ratios. In Suffolk County alone, there are almost 1,500 people on probation, supervised by 18 probation officers — roughly 80 cases per officer.

A Tuesday evening in Dorchester, riding along with a probation officer and two Boston police officers making home visits around Blue Hill Avenue. The visits are part of Operation NiteLite, a program created to reduce recidivism and gun violence by getting probation officers out into the neighborhoods. A lot of these probationers are gang members. There are curfews, and often electronic monitoring bracelets to make sure they stay in — or stay out of — certain areas. Bleak, broken houses. “No trespassing’’ signs. A few living with parents: tulips and careful mulch in the front yard. The visits are quick, efficient. A knock at the door, a brief conversation. A walk-through to the bedroom, up a dark staircase, down a dark hallway, for a spot check — drugs lying around? Guns? A utility bill, to verify address. A current phone number: “Yours. Not your mother’s, not your girlfriend’s.”

Over the last few years, in the wake of the corruption scandal, the Probation Department has reconfigured itself. In Suffolk County, there are new female, African-American, Hispanic, and Vietnamese probation officers; they know how to listen to and be heard by the offenders they work with. With each new probationer, there’s a risk and needs assessment. (How likely is the person to reoffend? Are there addiction or mental health issues that need treatment?) Officers work together with probationers to articulate goals and develop plans, while also reacting quickly to instances of noncompliance. According to Commissioner Edward Dolan, an emerging body of research is showing that these new methods work, both to improve the odds of rehabilitation and to protect the public. “Sometimes coercion is the initial thing that makes people comply,” he told me. “But then it shifts to them wanting to get better. We obviously don’t want people reoffending. We’re changing the trajectory of people’s lives, which ultimately makes communities safer.”

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Back at the courthouse, Chief Ifill is conducting another interview, this time with “Michael,” a 19-year-old just released from the prison where he served a year and a half for armed robbery. Ifill explains the conditions of Michael’s three-year probationary term, including check-ins with a probation officer, home visits, monthly fees, no contact with co-defendants.

“Now let’s talk about your goals for education and employment. Have you thought about getting your GED?”

The visits are quick, efficient. A knock at the door, a brief conversation.

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“I just got it,” Michael says promptly. “I already have some college credits. Thinking of enrolling in a community college.”

“Don’t get stuck for too long in remedial classes. There are academic resources, support, tutors, be sure you avail yourself of these.” They talk about finding work, the database of CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information)-friendly employers.

Michael nods, appears to agree to everything.

“Our role is to help you succeed,” Ifill tells him. “Not to entrap you. As long as you comply, we’re here to help you.”

The interview is over. Michael leaves to go back to the home where he lived with his mother and younger brother before the armed robbery. Ifill goes into the hall, which is filled with other people waiting to see their probation officers.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her latest book is “The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story.’’
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