Doug Tate

Big changes are in the works for the local judicial system.

Last week the Howard County Community Corrections Advisory Board unanimously approved an agreement aimed at merging the local probation and community corrections department. With the probation department bogged down by high caseloads, officials hope the move will streamline services and maximize grant opportunities.

“This is a huge undertaking, but as I see it, it is our best bet to be able to best supervise individuals that are within our system in Howard County,” said Doug Tate, the board’s chair and judge of Howard County Superior Court III.

In effect, the agreement approved last week will eliminate the directors’ positions in Howard County Community Corrections and the probation department. In lieu of those, adult probation and community corrections – along with work release and juvenile probation – will be led by supervisors in each department. The move will merge the departments as Howard County Community Supervision, and a director’s position will oversee the entire operation.

While the agreement restructures the departments’ leadership, it also will bring about change for lower level employees.

Tate said that community corrections caseworkers will be cross-trained in probation department duties, which he hopes will help cut down on issues where clients are being served by both probation department and community corrections caseworkers. In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for services within both departments to overlap, meaning two or more employees would be responsible for managing various duties associated with a single client.

The other purpose, according to Tate, is to maximize the ability of the county to receive grant funding from the state.

“The big impetus, the big reason for wanting to combine the two services is to maximize the amount of money we’re receiving from grants,” said Tate. “One of the big shifts we’ll see is we have case managers here in community corrections, and we have probation officers who are essentially case managers with probation. Right now, if you talk to any of those probation officers, they are barely keeping their heads above water. Their caseload is so far above where they should be at. We need more probation officers.

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“The county budget is getting smaller. It’s going to be very tough for them to come up with a couple hundred thousand dollars a year to pay for those officers to help us out.”

Making way for the move is the absence of former Howard County Community Corrections Director Ray Tetrault. The former director was fired in November.

Superior Court I Judge Bill Menges noted that such an agreement had been mulled over in years past, but personalities involved at the time had been resistant to such a change.

“Several years ago when we combined adult probation and juvenile probation under a single chief probation officer we were also talking about community corrections, about working that all together at that time,” said Menges. “That all fell apart because of some of the personalities involved that are no longer involved. I think we have a great deal of opportunity and cooperation with the probation department and community corrections.”

The opioid crisis, noted Tate, played a role in the board’s decision to move the merger proposal forward as well. That issue, he said, has hit the probation department especially hard.

“It’s because of the opioid crisis that we need these additional case managers,” said Tate. “It’s why we need to step up our supervision. It’s why we’re pushing for this agreement. I hope that someday we can say we’ve won that war, but it’s a long way away.”

With the board’s approval of the merger agreement, the commissioners and council also must give the proposal a nod. The budgets of the probation and community corrections departments, said Menges, also will need to be reworked if approved.