It's What We Do


January 17, 1991|By MARK MILLER

Statistics. They don't mean much unless you can apply them to real life. Recently I heard one over the radio that applies: In the decade of the 1980s, the announcer said, the number of #F parolees and probationers has increased 125 percent.

You'll get no argument at Steuart Hill, once the Franklin Station Post Office, now a West Baltimore field office of the Division of Parole and Probation. It is an office under siege, where the numbers and the reality entwine: a mass of humanity on report days; field books arranged across desks like so many volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia; file cabinets beaten into submission; secretaries' baskets piled high with reports; agents' calendars booked solid with court dates; agents' mail boxes stuffed with new cases, phone messages, arrest notices, letters from other agencies, memos.

We each have our reasons for doing what we do, this thankless work that assaults our sense of worth, that challenges our dignity and integrity, sometimes getting the better of them, sometimes not. It pays the bills. The hours are flexible. The job is secure: Lay us off, and people who ordinarily should live behind bars but for lack of bed space would roam unsupervised, unaccountable.

Few of our agents, if any, harbor idealistic notions of helping people, of assisting the criminally bent to turn their lives around. Division policy, the massive caseloads and the high recidivism all mandate against it. We veterans, who started in the afterglow of the egalitarian, social-oriented Sixties, shed the last vestiges of our idealism long ago, somewhere between Watergate and the fall of Saigon.

Cynicism, though, is no barrier to pride in one's work, in doing the best job one can do under contemptible conditions. We're bombarded daily by new cases from 5 zip codes. We now do courtesy intakes (call it a request we can't refuse) because the intake office can't handle the volume. We drive through some of Baltimore's worst neighborhoods to verify home addresses. We wade through computer print-outs with enough sections to wallpaper a room. We're required to enforce sometimes ridiculous special conditions of the court. We sit in court for hours, sometimes all day, waiting to testify. In short, we're bureaucratic marathon runners, pounding the bureaucratic-political pavement in a race of catch-up, reconciled, more and more, to a second-place finish -- or worse, no finish.

Yet we persevere. Why? ''Because it's what I do, it's what I might always do, so I might as well do it right,'' is the way one veteran agent at Steuart Hill explained it, an agent who when he began figured the job was a stepping stone to something else. It's the old Puritan work ethic, the call to duty, to be useful, to collect something more than a paycheck.

''I did 5 CMC interviews today,'' another veteran once told me proudly, when the tedious, long-winded, detested CMCs were de rigeur. Report writing is no joy either, yet there's no denying the gratification that comes with completing one, especially one that is thorough and grammatically sound. We grumble, we bitch, and then it's praise the Lord and pass the warrants.

No doubt, some of us at Steuart Hill will go on to other things. There's talk of law school, masters degrees, business opportunities, transfers to other agencies. One agent just left in the recent call-up of army reservists. His cases, over 200 of them, will be divided up, adding about 20 cases to each agent's caseload, some of which contain 500 cases already.

We will pile the case folders on our desks, cursing them and complaining because we have enough cases of our own. We will try to ignore them, pretend they don't exist, but to no avail; our sense of pride won't let us. In no time, we will find ourselves contacting the clients, scheduling them to report, verifying addresses and special conditions, violating them if necessary. We have no choice; it's what we do.

Mark Miller is a parole officer.

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