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Parole officers aid rehabilitation

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

When Don Brown knocked on the front door, he knocked with a heavy fist. He stood almost an arms' length from the door, striking it three times with his knuckles.

It was not an insistent knock, but a heavy thumping, confidently announcing the parole officer's presence.

Brown had a badge clipped to his belt, between a black, holstered handgun and a pair of metal handcuffs. He had a folder tucked under his left arm and his eyes were covered with large, dark sunglasses. He looked official and intimidating, but when the door opened, his face transformed into a smile and he took the sunglasses off.

"You home for lunch?" he asked.

The man in the doorway was a thin man, a 56-year-old convicted felon, who had been given a life sentence for murder. He was a wearing a striped polo shirt and had a pair of sandals pulled over white socks. He's a concrete worker and has been on parole, and living in a red, brick house in Forest Park, since 2004.

"No," he said, answering Brown's question. "I've got this cold and I'm home sick today."

The two men, the parole officer and the life-long parolee, talked casually and easily. After a few minutes, Brown got to the point of the visit. "Well," he said. "I just saw your car in the driveway and thought it would be a good time to check in. You been having any problems or any changes?"

"No," the parolee said. "I haven't had any problems or any changes. I haven't had none in 15 years, except that one, and I don't plan to have no more."

Clayton County's Chief Parole Officer, Joey Morris, said Brown's casual, and yet confident, style of interacting with parolees is meant to reinforce the idea that he's there to help them. He doesn't want to see the 56-year-old go back to jail, he wants him to work a good job, wants him to adjust to life outside of prison, and wants him to be a law-abiding citizen and a contributing member of society.

"We are not these people's adversaries," Morris said. "We never want to have an adversarial relationship with our parolees, because if we have an adversarial relationship, it would be hard to get these folks to make changes."

The style may also contribute to the Jonesboro office's success. Successful completion of parole, nationwide, hovers above 40 percent, according to Kim Patton-Johnson, spokeswoman for Georgia's State Board of Pardons and Paroles. In Georgia, that number is better, with about 60 percent of parolees successfully transitioning from prison back into society.

In District 20, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles that covers Clayton County, however, the parolees complete what they're supposed to complete about 80 percent of the time. This month, the office, located on South Lake Parkway in Jonesboro, had a 94 percent successful completion rate.

Morris attributes the rate to his parole officers, the metro area's employment opportunities and some excellent treatment providers in the area.

There are nine officers, in the Jonesboro location, supervising more than 580 parolees in Clayton County. They meet with people who have just been released into parole in the first few days of the month, check on the high priority parolees at their homes and workplaces during most of the month, and check on the remaining cases in their files for the last week of the month-long period.

The parolees have committed offenses ranging, Morris said, from bad driving to murder. The parole office administers drug tests, keeps track of parolees and provides job training.

They do this on a budget of $4.08 per parolee per day, a number significantly lower, Patton-Johnson said, than the $46.62 per prisoner per day required to pay for incarceration.

At the parole office, they're focused on rehabilitation. They're not always successful, though, and Morris gets a print out, every morning, of the names of parolees who've gotten into trouble with local law enforcement.

"We've had, over the years," he said, "thousands and thousands of parolees. There's almost as many problems. When you're dealing with folks, when you're dealing with people, there are thousands of problems."

The officers can't force anyone to stay on the right side of the law. They can't make convicted felons walk the straight-and-narrow. Sometimes, especially with domestic situations, it can seem impossible to bring about a constructive change in the life of a parolee.

Morris tells parolees that they hold all the cards, and have to decide what they want to do. Brown tells them they have to act, and then he will react.

But a lot of the recently released prisoners, Brown and Morris said, have made up their minds to go straight, and a combination of treatment, classes and unannounced check-ups can mean rehabilitation.