Criminal court proceedings in the region all but stopped under Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
For the Somerset County Probation Department, located in the county office building on North Center Avenue in Somerset, that was just a bump in the road.
“When the courts closed down, we stayed open,” said David Roman, Somerset County’s chief probation officer. “We continued our service. You deal with it and move on.”
Somerset County President Judge D. Gregory Geary met with members of the district attorney’s office, public defender’s office, court administrator’s office and others to keep the criminal justice system operating during the pandemic, Roman said.
Somerset County’s probation department includes 22 adult probation/parole officers, five juvenile probation officers and eight support staff.
It can be a dangerous career but also a rewarding one.
Probation officers are educated and trained in the use of firearms and self-defense, Roman said. Probation officers have arrest powers for offenders in their charge.
The Prison Policy Initiative estimates that there are 4.5 million U.S. adults on supervised release – probation or parole.
Somerset County probation has about 1,000 offenders in its care, Roman said.
Probation is an alternative to jail. After being released from prison, an offender meets with a parole officer.
A probation officer’s responsibilities are varied.
• Counseling offenders on issues such as anger and addiction.
• Arranging for medical, mental health or substance abuse treatment.
• Evaluating the person’s progress in accomplishing goals and objectives.
• Gathering information about the offender’s background by speaking with family and friends.
• Conducting pre-sentencing investigations for the court and investigating alleged probation violators.
• Attending arraignments, pleas, sentencings and other hearings pertaining to probation supervision.
The probation department evaluates first-time offenders who could be eligible for the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) program.
The goal is to build a safer community by reducing crime and recidivism, Roman said.
“You can’t arrest them and put them in jail and a few months later say, ‘Hey you’re OK now,’ ” he said. “A lot of people don’t want to hear that because they want to get tough on crime.
“We can get tough on crime, but you have to give them assistance so it doesn’t happen a second time or a third time or a fourth time,” he said.
Offenders are evaluated to decide what services are needed and how often they must meet with probation officers.
“You might have an adolescent who is a first-time offender and gets himself in trouble,” Roman said.
“He wouldn’t need as many services as, maybe, a heroin addict.”
The pandemic forced changes in how probation officers meet with offenders.
“We relied on younger staff members to teach us how to use Zoom, or we would use the phone,” he said. “It wasn’t as effective, but we did provide some services.”
Probation officers also meet offenders without stepping inside the home, he said. They wear masks and meet offenders outside their homes.
Roman reminds residents that Somerset County is still battling an opioid crisis.
Whatever the challenge, Roman calls his staff problem-solvers.
“I’m very proud of our staff,” Roman said. “They have to make decisions that affect somebody’s civil liberties. That’s not something to be taken lightly.”