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Retiring Franklin County chief probation officer has seen a lot of change in last 35 years

August 01, 2008|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. -- When he first joined the Franklin County Probation Department in 1973, there only were a handful of probation officers, each with a caseload of 40 or 50 offenders, Chief Probation Officer Richard Mertz said.

"There were six of us that handled both adult and juvenile" cases, said Mertz, the chief probation officer since 1995.

There now are five supervisors and 23 probation officers, said Mertz, whose last day on the job is today.

While a standard line officer handles a caseload averaging 250 offenders, Adult Probation also has officers to supervise those with drunken-driving convictions, others to write pre-sentence reports, monitor the county's Pre-release Program and run the Intermediate Punishment Program.

There also is a sexual offender treatment officer, Mertz said.

The technology to track and monitor criminal offenders probably is the biggest change Mertz has seen over more than three decades. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, officers "found them by good old shoe leather express," he said.

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Visits to the homes and work sites of those on probation or parole still are done, but sometimes an officer merely has to drive by to determine if someone showed up for work, Mertz said. Monitoring devices on some offenders put out a signal that a device carried by an officer can pick up from outside a workplace.

Other offenders wear electronic monitors that send a signal to a base station connected to their home telephone, which automatically informs probation if the person wanders too far away or tampers with the ankle bracelet.

Global Positioning System devices are getting limited use, but rely on cell phone technology, which is not yet as reliable as it needs to be, Mertz said.

Computer networks also have made it easier to track down parole and probation violators who might be picked up in other jurisdictions, Mertz said. Some violators are able to elude authorities for years, but few disappear forever.

"They'll show up eventually," Mertz said. "You can run, but you can't hide."

"Rich was instrumental in getting a lot of new programs out there," Franklin County President Judge John R. Walker said. "Probation in the last 25 years has changed from putting people back in jail as parole violators right away to trying to help them with their problems. Our goal is to keep them out of jail, if possible, for misdemeanors."

Mertz's department no longer handles the juvenile caseload. Juvenile Probation now is a separate entity with about 20 officers that works with Children and Youth Services, he said.

Along with better technology and testing for the presence of drugs or alcohol - a frequent cause for someone to be found in violation - probation officers now are better trained to assess the risks and needs of individual offenders and act accordingly.

"The one constant over all the years is the offender," Mertz said. "Everything else is change-driven."

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