Crime & Courts

New approach to parole shows signs of success

As a lead parole officer in Wichita, Dawn Shepler works with parolees who face extra challenges in their lives after prison.

One of her parolees hears voices.

One has hallucinations in her office.

Another is developmentally disabled.

On a recent day, an Eagle reporter visited Wichita parole offices to see how parole officers monitor parolees, at a time when the Kansas Department of Corrections is facing possible spending cuts that would limit supervision of parolees.

Shepler, who helps severely mentally ill parolees, said the office's mental health unit has one parole officer position unfilled.

Because of that one opening, officers are supervising 40 to 50 parolees, when ideally it should be 25 to 30, she said. She ends up handling more cases and doing less mentoring of other staff members and has less time to devote to her administrative responsibilities.

Every week, she has one 30-minute appointment after another with mentally ill parolees.

Her second appointment one day seems disoriented. He is 41 and lives at a homeless shelter. He has at least four convictions for driving under the influence. Twenty-one years ago, he was convicted of two burglaries. He is classified as a moderate-risk parolee, meaning he is considered at a moderate risk of re-offending.

When she asks what's wrong, he says, "I haven't been sleeping very good." He says he has been taking double doses of a medication. "My medicine ain't working," he tells her.

He says he is "paranoid all the time. I just think everybody's after me."

As he sits in front of her, he breathes hard and keeps moving his knees up and down.

Shepler picks up her phone and calls Comcare Crisis to check on his medications.

She tells the parolee that his lack of sleep puts him "at a very elevated risk."

When she asks if he is still hearing voices, he answers: "I just hear ... demons snorting fire. Every once in a while, I can hear them."

"When you hear the demons snort fire ... is it when you're more stressed?"

"I don't really know, Dawn."

At times, he listens to his radio with headphones, "to block it out," he says.

She asks if he is using drugs or alcohol, and he says, "No, none."

During the phone call, she gets him a tentative appointment for an assessment later that day and a definite appointment for the following Monday, if he can't be seen that afternoon. She hands him a card with the appointment information.

He tells he appreciates her help.

As he leaves, she tells him, "It's very important when you are taking a prescription that you take it as prescribed ... . If you double-dose, you're not going to have it the rest of the month."

And one more thing: "I want you to go straight to Comcare Crisis," she tells him. "They have coffee. Make sure you bundle up and wear your gloves."

If her caseload wasn't so high, she says later, she would take him to his appointment.

Signs of success

Shepler's dealings with the parolee reflect an approach the Kansas parole system has adopted over the past decade: That often the best way to help parolees function in society and not re-offend is to be less punitive, more helpful. The older attitude was more "trail 'em, nail 'em, jail 'em," said Bill Miskell, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Corrections.

Parole officials see signs that the newer approach has been working, said Kent Sisson, southern region parole director based in Wichita.

The Department of Corrections says it has seen a 69 percent reduction in the number of offenders fleeing from parole and a 36 percent reduction in new felony convictions of parolees.

"We tend to think Kansas is safer," Sisson said.

In the 1990s and earlier this decade, the parole system came under scrutiny after a number of parolees were charged in high-profile homicide cases.

'Absolutely nothing'

Later in the morning, Shepler meets with another mentally ill parolee who is having hallucinations in her office. He laughs or smiles at inappropriate times. He is about to turn 25. He has drug convictions and is classified as high-risk.

She's working to help him get a proper birth certificate so he can apply for additional assistance.

Parolees on assistance face more difficulties getting aid now because of the state's fiscal crisis.

After lunch, Shepler and another parole official head out to visit a developmentally disabled, mentally ill parolee who lives in a sagging old house in a high-crime, low-income Wichita neighborhood. The woman has lived on the street much of her life, at times as a prostitute. She is 42, has burglary and theft convictions and is classified as high-risk.

Shepler has been trying to help her get a birth certificate so she can get assistance.

"She has absolutely nothing," Shepler says.

In the kitchen of the house where the woman is staying, someone has turned on all of the stove burners for warmth.

The woman seems nervous. Tears form in her eyes. She sits on a couch and lights a cigarette.

Shepler notices that the house looks tidier than during a previous visit. She compliments the woman on her housekeeping — positive reinforcement.

Days later, Shepler learns that the woman has been kicked out by her roommate. The woman ended up back on the street. It took Shepler four hours on a recent day to find the woman temporary housing.

'She's trying'

In another Wichita parole office, case manager/parole officer Brianna Morphis meets with a 43-year-old woman who has been on parole since April. The woman served time for aggravated battery. She is classified as moderate-risk.

The woman has had a hard time finding jobs — some employers won't hire her because of her felony record — but she has held a food-service job since August.

"She's trying to do things on her own," Morphis says.

The parolee takes a bus or rides a bike. Sometimes, Morphis gives her rides. The woman is trying to get a driver's license.

Parolees who have limited incomes and transportation options sometimes get bus passes. But with budget pressures, there aren't as many bus passes to go around. Parole officers have to be more sparing.

"I think we still try to do as much as we can" to supervise parolees and help them to cope with their challenges, if not succeed, Morphis says.

"We try to continue with the resources, even though they're dwindling."