Pilot program helps rural Georgia probationers stay out of prison

Georgia Public BroadcastingDecember 14, 2013 

Sandersville Probation Officer Christopher Burke, left, visits with probationer Chet Mull as he works on his GED at Oconee Fall Line Technical College.

ADAM RAGUSEA — GEORGIA PUBLIC BROADCASTING

SANDERSVILLE -- A state program here aims to even the scales between urban and rural justice, giving people who have gotten into trouble with the law an equal shot at getting their lives back on track.

Sandersville, a tiny city halfway between Macon and Augusta, is just one of the places where state Department of Corrections officials have launched a rural probation program. Here, trucks on the road are caked in red Georgia clay, kaolin mining is the top industry and some of the government services that people in larger communities enjoy just aren’t available.

On a recent Thursday morning, Sandersville probation officer Christopher Burke visited with 31-year-old Chet Mull.

“He’s been on probation with us for a couple of months now,” Burke said as he drove to observe Mull working on his GED at Oconee Fall Line Technical College. “He doesn’t really talk a lot, and actually he started talking more since we got him on probation.”

Burke stepped into the college’s main building and found Mull walking in a hallway.

“How’s everything going with you today, Chet?” Burke asked in a friendly tone.

“Good,” Mull replied.

After a cordial exchange in which Burke verified Mull’s address and other basic information, the conversation came to a head.

“You ain’t using drugs or alcohol or anything?” Burke asked.

“None at all,” replied Mull, who was sentenced to probation earlier this year on drug charges.

Since Gov. Nathan Deal signed a second round of criminal justice reforms into law in April, judges have had more latitude to ignore mandatory jail sentences for nonviolent drug crimes such as Mull’s, and they can opt for probation instead.

The state DOC offers intensive drug counseling and other services at day reporting centers, or DRCs, in 14 regional urban centers, such as Macon, Columbus and Savannah. Until recently, no such services were available to probationers in the more remote areas of Georgia. But the DRC Lite program, now in its second year, puts bare bones equivalents in 11 rural judicial circuits across the state.

At an annual cost of $750,000, the program pays for Burke to give Mull some extra attention. It also pays for Mull to spend four days a week in group counseling sessions at the Sandersville Probation Office.

“We teach a class that helps them get ready to make a change in their lives,” said Ruthie Turner, the part-time DRC Lite program counselor in Sandersville. Turner also teaches a substance abuse program and skills that will help probationers re-enter society -- “how to do a resume, how to do a job interview, how to dress for those things,” she said.

The classes have helped Mull add structure to his life, he said.

“I’m hoping to pass my GED and go further into welding, get custody of my son, open our own business,” he said.

Of the 60 probationers who have graduated the DRC Lite program so far, corrections officials said, only three have gotten into serious trouble with the law again.

The program is just one of several new state initiatives geared to making it easier for people to stay on the straight and narrow, especially in rural Georgia.

The state parole board has a new “virtual office” program that allows parole officers to visit with people via video conference instead of making them travel. Low-risk parolees can even check in through an automated voice-recognition phone system.

“This is definitely part of a national trend,” said Adam Gelb, who researches corrections issues for the Pew Charitable Trusts. Gelb cited programs in Oregon, South Carolina and California, as well Georgia.

In Georgia, it costs more than $50 a day to keep an adult in prison, he said.

“Policymakers from both sides of the aisle are increasingly recognizing that we’re not going to build our way out of the crime problem with more and more prisons,” he said.

“It’s the most expensive, least effective way to deal with these lower-level offenders.”

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