State budget cuts probably will result in 15 to 20 parole officers in the Wichita region — about half the staff — being laid off, a union official said.
Wichita and Sedgwick County law enforcement officials say it will lead to an increase in crime.
"This has a potential to be a disaster" for public safety, Wichita police Deputy Chief Tom Stolz said Friday.
The bulk of the 15 to 20 layoffs would be people who work at the regional parole office in Wichita, said Fred Debes, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 64. The union represents 118 parole officers statewide.
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The layoff estimate comes from information gained in discussions with Kansas Department of Corrections officials Thursday, Debes said.
The layoffs, which Debes describes as unprecedented, will severely limit the ability of parole officers to manage offenders after they leave prison, local authorities say.
If the layoff estimate becomes reality, "you can expect a similar increase in the number of new felonies committed (by parolees) and new victims created," Sedgwick County Sheriff Robert Hinshaw said.
"You might have some short-term savings, but the long-term impact on the budget and public safety is where you're going to be paying for it," Hinshaw said
Kim Parker, chief deputy district attorney in Sedgwick County, said the ability of remaining parole officers to supervise parolees will be greatly hampered.
"The fact that somebody will be on parole will be meaningless," Parker said.
Tops in parolees
The Wichita regional parole office, the largest in Kansas, employs 35 to 40 parole officers who are responsible for supervising and monitoring between 1,500 and 2,000 parolees in the southern half of the state, Debes said.
Some of those assigned to the Wichita office work in satellite offices in Hutchinson, Dodge City, Garden City, Emporia, Independence and Pittsburg.
According to the corrections department, Sedgwick County has the most parolees of any county in the state: 1,485. Next is Wyandotte County with 746; Johnson, 626; Shawnee, 527; and Reno, 180.
Kansas Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts has said that up to 66 layoffs statewide — from parole services, re-entry and central office staff — will be needed to meet an $8.4 million budget cut. The state is grappling with a $500 million shortfall in next year's budget, which takes effect July 1. Legislators are still debating the budget.
A significant number of the layoffs also will result from the loss of federal stimulus money, Roberts said.
The layoffs will be effective in June.
The Department of Corrections is still sorting out how many layoffs will be needed and who will be laid off, said agency spokesman Jan Lunsford.
Debes estimates that the average salary for a parole officer in the Wichita region is $33,000 to $34,000. His salary, after 22 years as a parole officer, is about $40,000, he said.
The department provided these salary averages: $35,198 for an entry-level parole officer and $40,590 for a team leader parole officer.
If half of the Wichita regional officers are laid off, it basically would double an already burdensome caseload, Debes said.
The average caseload in the Wichita office is 59 parolees per parole officer, Debes said. The department said the average is 54 parolees per officer.
As a parole officer in the Wichita office, Debes said he supervises 66 parolees, 20 of whom are considered to be at a high risk of committing new crimes.
He meets with six to 10 parolees a day. "And that's not nearly enough time" to assess their risk and needs, he said.
At any time, he has six to eight parolees who are in jail because of new crimes or serious parole violations, such as domestic violence.
To compensate for the increased caseload of remaining officers, the Department of Corrections plans to have as many as 1,000 parolees statewide call in to a computerized system once a month rather than meet with or talk directly to parole officers, Debes said. The system would rely on parolees honestly answering recorded questions.
Stolz, the deputy police chief, said the idea that a call-in system could work is "ludicrous."
Many parolees have a history of lying, he said, "and now we're going to trust them to call in?"
Mark Masterson, head of the Sedgwick County corrections department, also has serious doubts about a call-in system.
The first time a parolee using a call-in system gets charged with murder, the public will be outraged, Masterson said.
Over the years, each time the corrections department has reduced the amount of time that parole officers meet with parolees and each time it has become more lenient in handling parole violations, it has resulted in a surge of violations and crimes by parolees, Debes said.
Parolees see that they can get away with behavior that feeds into crimes, Debes said. For example, nearly every urine sample parolees give tests positive for drugs or alcohol or both "because they know there is no room" in prison.
To illustrate the importance of close parole supervision, Debes and other corrections officers let reporters see what he called a "small portion" of weapons and drugs confiscated from parolees in the past couple years.
In the past week, officers seized a bayonet-mounted Russian military assault rifle and another assault rifle from two parolees who have felony DUI records. On the same table where the rifles were displayed in a parole office, officers also had laid out a confiscated shotgun, various handguns, ammunition, swords, a large brick of marijuana and bags of methamphetamine. Each constituted a separate parole violation and crime.
A valuable partner
Wichita police officers and detectives, especially in the gang and burglary units, rely on their partnership with parole officers to help solve crimes, Stolz said.
Many times, a parole officer is the best source for how to locate a parolee suspected of a crime.
But because parole officers are already overburdened, it limits their partnership with police, Stolz said. With the layoffs, he said, "we'll have no partnership anymore."
Parker, the prosecutor, said the district attorney's office sees a direct correlation between limited parole supervision and parolees committing new crimes that get them sent back to jail and prison.
"We've continued to strip parole of their ability to ... bring these people back into society in a productive way," she said.
Cutting parole supervision only shifts costs from state government to local government, Parker said.
And there is the "untold cost that a victim is left with, fear that you can't even put a financial number on," she said.
Public safety mission
Debes said he couldn't remember another time in his 22 years when parole officers in the local office were being laid off. If there have been layoffs, they haven't come close to the level that is likely now, he said. In the past, he said, budget problems resulted in positions being left vacant, but not in layoffs.
The department has developed a formula to determine who will be laid off, Debes said. It factors in seniority and annual evaluations. Therefore, some of the newest staff will be the first laid off, he said.
In a Feb. 15 memo, Roberts, the corrections secretary, said he plans to notify all staff affected by layoffs by March 18.
His memo concludes: "During these difficult times, we will need to support each other while continuing to focus on our mission of public safety."
But by resorting to layoffs, the department isn't dealing with public safety realistically, Debes said.