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Living by the Rules

Probation officers look for positive behavior and increased accountability

There is no way around the rules.

Either you live within the legal boundaries set by society or you lose the freedom to govern your own choices.

That message is delivered loud and clear to the convicted criminals who enter the Hood River Community Corrections Office. Many of these individuals mistakenly believe that once the doors to the jail or courtroom have swung open they can immediately return to being an autonomous citizen. However, they quickly learn that their right to re-enter the community as a free agent has to be earned by taking accountable and responsible actions.

“When a person is honestly trying to do well, abide by their court conditions, and get on with life, they see us as helpful — if they are not they see us as very oppressive and onerous,” said Jim Bondurant, director of the local probation/parole office.

One client (name withheld by request) is almost ready to be released from supervision and admitted that he has lived out the reality of Bondurant’s statement. After three years on probation, he is sober, no longer using drugs, and has almost repaid in full the $5,000 that he stole from a local business.

“When we first got started we butted heads a lot but now it’s all calm and casual,” he said of Officer Bill Nix.

On a cold blustery night, Nix has made a quick stop at that individual’s home to remind him that a payment to the court is overdue. Nix, a former police sergeant, decorated military veteran, and municipal court judge in Washington State, has a no-nonsense view of life. As he cruises through the dark streets of Hood River, Nix falls in behind a police cruiser, monitoring the radio traffic. He watches with interest when the officer in front of him activates his overhead lights and pulls the vehicle to the side of the road for speeding. But he doesn’t stop himself, knowing that case will come to him in its own time if there is any serious infraction of the law.

The local police officers and deputies share a strange “before and after” relationship with Nix and his colleagues. They work independently of each other but both parties are thankful for the backup on their efforts to protect life and property.

“We have a wonderful working relationship, we’re blessed to have some of the best probation officers in the state who get out into the community and check on our offenders when they least expect it,” said Sheriff Joe Wampler.

His men are also there for the unarmed probation officers should they run into any trouble during an encounter with a hostile client.

Each shift for Nix is filled with both successes and failures. He was forced on one evening to issue an arrest warrant for a sex offender who had left the area without his permission. On that same night, he visited a recovering drug addict who was glowing with happiness and health, pregnant with her second child and clean and sober for six months.

“It’s too bad the police officers aren’t exposed to the work involved in supervising the people that they arrest. They never really know what happens to the people they put into court, that’s just the first step in the process,” he said.

The duty of a patrol officer ends once he has delivered the criminal either to court or to jail. The probation officers take over to enforce the prohibitions/restrictions set by the judge once that individual is released from custody. They are charged with setting up the right program so that these conditions can be fulfilled. That program is based upon an assessment of the client’s risk to re-offend and includes behavior, criminal history and personal needs. Bondurant’s three staffers juggle caseloads that include a mix of felony crimes and misdemeanors.

Nix currently oversees 90 people, some of whom need to have monthly home visits and others who can be trusted to check in regularly via telephone. He and his colleagues also replace the parole board for criminals being released from prison sentences of less than 12 months (most typically served in a county jail.) That authority gives them the jurisdiction to put a perpetrator behind bars for up to six months if that individual violates a probationary standard.

“It’s really easy to say, ‘I’m not going to use drugs, I’m not going back to jail’ while in this office, but at 1 a.m. when you are sitting around with someone else who is consuming alcohol or marijuana it’s a lot harder to say ‘no’,” said Bondurant.

The probation officer requires his/her clients to take proactive measures to restructure their lives and lose their victim mentality. And that means getting a job, acknowledging that they alone bear responsibility for their life choices, and developing both financial and personal goals.

“Some people don’t seem to have the ability to think ahead, they only think of what is here right now and that makes them totally reactive,” said Nix. “They don’t plan anything at all, there are only dreams with no action to fulfill them.”

But when someone does overcome the odds and break out of the cycle of crime, Nix said their success seems even sweeter. In more than 12 years on the job, he has gotten only about half a dozen “Thank You” cards from people who now lead productive lives. But he feels a tremendous sense of accomplishment from knowing that he played a part in that lifestyle change.

“I think what surprises me is that I’m not burned out, I try to see my job in a positive manner — it’s about changing behavior,” said Nix.

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