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Making their mark on the community

WORTHINGTON -- Approximately 20 people gathered last week in the training room at the Prairie Justice Center to listen as a speaker talked of counseling opportunities and options available at the Prairie Rose Counseling Center. The meeting was a gathering of the clients involved in Group Supervision through Rock-Nobles Community Corrections (RNCC).

Group Supervision is one of many programs RNCC offers to insure public safety and strive for offender change -- two important parts of their mission statement. Probation, Parole and Community Supervision Week, which began Sunday, is an opportunity to honor the agents who counsel and advise those people who are released into society after or in lieu of serving jail or prison time.

Group Supervision meetings take place every three months and are for low and medium risk offenders. The meetings are educational and informative, and include speakers such as insurance agents, community education representatives, and staff from family services and other agencies.

Group Supervision for the offenders at lower risk levels reduces the caseloads for probation agents, allowing more time to supervise serious offenders.

"As long as they have no new offenses and their fines are paid or being paid, they can serve in this program," Adult Group Agent Molly Buckmister explained. "We have five groups here (in Worthington) and two in Luverne."

Those who may be at a higher risk level have a one-on-one meeting with an agent, who helps the offender with a variety of things.

"We wear a number of hats," said RNCC Adult Agent Kathy Reker. "Our job is to make sure our clients understand the conditions they are under, what is expected of them."

The agent will talk to a client about finances so that any fines can be paid or worked off in community service. An agent makes sure the client is complying with court orders, which may include random drug and alcohol testing, chemical assessments or monitoring equipment.

"They all live out in the community," Reker explained. "So we do not know what they are doing every minute of the day."

But being an agent is not only about complying with court orders.

"We listen to them, offer suggestions and referrals and determine what are the big issues in their lives," Reker stated. "We steer them toward programs that will help, and talk about little goals and big goals."

Some clients, Reker admitted, are not as willing to listen or open to suggestions, but others participate without a qualm, knowing that probation is an alternative to jail. They also know that if they don't follow the rules of probation, they could end up in front of a judge and eventually back in jail or prison.

"Most of the clients see us as on their side," Reker said. "We are more neutral than the cops or the attorneys."

With more than 30 years of experience, Reker has seen and heard it all. Her assignment is the people convicted of felonies. Not only does she advise the clients, she and other agents also take care of gathering information for pre-sentence investigations (PSI), which are ordered by judges before sentencing takes place.

"We learn about a person's life, education, chemical and mental health issues," she explained. "Then we write a report with our recommendations."

During her career. Reker has seen changes in how that information is gathered -- instead of using a telephone to contact the various agencies, agents can use computers to grab the information themselves, right off the Internet.

When she first started in community corrections, there were no screening tools and no sentencing guidelines. The process for getting someone into treatment involved making a phone call to find an empty bed.

"Now that process is much more complicated," Reker said. "And if there is no money, they don't go to treatment."

The people have also changed, Reker said. At one time, she knew most of the people she was dealing with -- knew their families, where they lived and what kind of life they had.

"Now we have the different minority groups, and are trying to communicate through interpreters," she stated. "We also have cultural issues."

The language barrier can be an enormous problem. Rather than having an in-depth conversation, the discussion may be limited to the most basic information.

"There is no counseling, no development of relationships," Reker explained. "It just doesn't work -- I don't think it works."

Thirty years ago, Reker was seeing arrests for alcohol and marijuana, and while that hasn't changed, she has seen the addition of arrests for cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. According to the American Probation and Parole Association, there were more than two million incarcerated in the country at the end of 2006, at an approximate cost of $62 per day per person. At the same time, there were almost five million being supervised on probation and parole, at an average daily cost of less than $5 per day.

In Nobles County, there were 770 adults and 125 juveniles on probation in 2007. Rock County had 254 adults and 28 juveniles on probation.

Community service hours totaled 14,882, between Rock and Noble Counties. The average agent has a caseload of more than 150 clients.