Delaware Municipal Court probation officers now handle close to 300 cases at once because Delaware County’s growth and the heroin epidemic.
Delaware Municipal Court Judge Marianne Hemmeter held a special lunch Wednesday to thank the six municipal probation officers for National Probation Week. Hemmeter said the six officers supervise close to 300 active probationers and conduct interviews, drug screenings and other check-ins with people on probation for a misdemeanor offense.
The case load has grown in recent years both because of population and heroin.
“[Some of that is Delaware’s growth] but I think it’s also a realization that maybe 20 years ago even if the case load wasn’t as high you didn’t have the people who had heroin additions,” Hemmeter said. “It’s that type of case that’s fueling some higher numbers.”
Doug Staugler, the chief probation officer, said cases that involve heroin have completely different probation protocols and are longer and more complicated.
“Five years ago the case loads were about the same, the difference now is that they are more demanding cases because of the heroin addicts that come in here,” Staugler said. “You’re talking about treatment, following up with treatment, drug screens, office appointments, the difficulty of each case has increased.”
Likewise, Hemmeter said many misdemeanor crimes, like theft, are fueled by heroin and require a different kind of probation.
“It’s a whole different ball game,” Hemmeter said. “The need for us to grow to respond to that is evident.”
Hemmeter said probation officers typically conduct home visits to check on their probationers because it gives them a better sense of that person.
“We only see people in a courtroom and sometimes we get a completely different picture once we are in their home environment,” Hemmeter said. Hemmeter said home visits can also tell officers if probationers have other needs, like where their next meal is coming from.
Staugler said the increased case load has meant that probation officers are doing less home visits and are instead calling probationers into their office.
“We don’t get out doing home visits as much,” Staugler said. “Home visits take up about a half hour, in a full day you’d be lucky to see 15 people. You can see 15 people in two hours if you call them into the office.”
Hemmeter said in a perfect world, probation officers would have a mix of home visits and office appointments.
“How do we balance a heavy, heavy docket with the need to effectively supervise, which does involve getting out behind a desk and going to do home visits?” Hemmeter said. “It’s a drum I’ve been beating since the after first six months I was here. I was used to the felony level, where their case loads are completely different and how they supervise is completely different.”
Hemmeter said adding another probation officer would allow for more home visits and a decreased case load, but said the costs of another position is a significant factor.
“I don’t have unlimited resources,” Hemmeter said. “We have to be very careful about spending.”
Hemmeter praised the work of the probation officers and said they have done a great job adapting to the needs of the office.
“This isn’t anything new, this is the struggle of courts, and we grapple with it every day,” Hemmeter said. “I’m very appreciative of their efforts and what they have done. This is the best probation staff I have ever seen.”
Glenn Battishill can be reached at 740-413-0903 or on Twitter @BattishillDG.