FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — In his 36 years at Allen County Probation, Eric Zimmerman, chief probation officer, has seen the department grow from eight probation officers to 29 with a desire to change offenders’ lives for the better.

“People get the idea that we wait with bated breath for somebody to violate and we say aha!,” Zimmerman said, during an interview on Wednesday with WANE 15.

That’s not the reality, Zimmerman says.

Probation stats for 2021 show an 87% success rate.

The county has been going towards a more interventional mode by providing treatment for substance abuse and alcohol abusers, counseling, and facilities to work through problems. These facilities include the Redemption House for women, Choices for men, the Residential Services Center through Allen County Community Corrections, and Park Center.

“There are some people not taking their probation seriously and might be on their path to revictimization that requires intervention. That’s when we file a violation,” Zimmerman said.

Numbers on probation violators sitting in the Allen County Jail stay pretty steady, according to demographic information provided daily to WANE from the Allen County Jail.

Out of an average of 800 inmates, probation violators number between 170 and 180, roughly 20-25% of those in jail are there on a probation hold.

But Zimmerman said those raw numbers can be deceiving.

When his office and other agencies like Allen County Community Corrections took a deep dive into one day, Nov. 21, 2021, at the Allen County Jail, the number of probation violators was 99 out of 813.

That is about 12 percent of the jail demographics, not the 20-25% usually reflected in the jail numbers. Of those 99 violators, 75 were for new arrests, 22 for technical violations, and 25 people violated one of the three other categories: Adult Probation, Allen County Community Corrections, or Drug Court.

Anthony Malloris, the lead booking officer at the Allen County Jail, says there is some differential in the way probation violators are counted because his agency counts pre-trial relief offenders with violations. In his count, the jail includes probation violators with major violations, probation violators with new cases, and pre-trial relief violators that constitute a “large chunk of new cases.”

Probation under scrutiny now

The subject of probation violation has come up as the outcry against jail conditions has become louder. Federal Judge Damon R. Leichty ruled on March 31 that the Allen County Jail was in violation of inmates’ 8th and 14th amendment rights and that conditions at the jail were inhumane. He was responding to a lawsuit filed in January 2020 by inmate Vincent Morris and the ACLU that overcrowding had led to many deplorable conditions at the jail.

Although Sheriff David Gladieux was in for some criticism for those conditions, Leichty directed his wrath toward the Allen County Commissioners and the Allen County Council for being aware that the jail was overcrowded and not taking steps to correct it.

The number of inmates at the jail is determined by the number of arrests made by Fort Wayne police officers and Allen County sheriff’s officers, how many people are prosecuted by the Allen County Prosecutor’s office, and how many folks are convicted and kept at the jail.

More than 300 Level 6 felony inmates – the lowest level felony offenders in Indiana – are kept at the jail, day in and day out.

That number could be reduced when the state legislature deems that Level 6 inmates will be returned to state prisons. State legislators reduced the prison population starting in 2014 by requiring county jails to house Level 6 inmates, swelling jail populations. 

87% success rate at Allen County Probation

Zimmerman wants people to know out of more than 5,000 people under supervision last year by Allen County Adult Probation, 87% of them were successful whether they were successfully discharged from the program or successful during their time on probation.

By the time a violation is filed, the department has generally tried multiple interventions, Zimmerman said, such as motivational interviewing, cognitive-behavioral programming, and building intrinsic motivation to change behavior. Cognitive behavior is attempting to have the offender recognize what gets them in trouble.

Technical violations often arise from using drugs or “refusing to even come into the probation department, thumbing their nose and dealing with their consequences,” Zimmerman said. Not every technical violation requires a warrant. The department uses subpoenas and orders to appear.

“Individuals sitting in technical probably had multiple chances, maybe gone to jail and gotten out and come back,” Zimmerman said. “When we talk about technical violators, we’re not waiting for all of these violations to accumulate so we have a heavier case. “

Zimmerman is optimistic while admitting that he deals with difficult cases. “In my experience, when you start to solve problems, you start to change lives.” He counsels people to show up for appointments because if offenders don’t, it makes for more problems down the line.

Court sends 60% to probation; 40% from prison and jail

When an individual is assigned to probation, 60% come straight from Allen Superior or Circuit courts. About 40% come from “liberty restricted environments,” which include prison, jail, and Community Corrections. Probation can make recommendations for home detention and Zimmerman said his department gives “four incentives to every one violation.”

In the waiting room at probation, incentives are everywhere. “Want a free lunch?” and “Want to take $50 off of your monthly fees?” two signs read. “See your PO (probation officer) for details!” The signs encourage offenders to follow the rules for lunch at Subway or money off fees.

Drug tests – coffee doesn’t make a test ‘dirty’

Drug tests alone run $10 and follow-up drug tests for a dirty test are $30. If there is an admission to using drugs, there’s no need for additional testing.

“Marijuana has traditionally been the most positive test we get back,” Zimmerman said. “25% of our population test positive, double of any other drug.”

“Contrary to popular opinion, the county is capable of testing for any drug, but doesn’t always do a full panel because it’s cost-prohibitive,” Zimmerman said. “People may switch drugs thinking the county doesn’t test for that drug, but probation is often alerted by a variety of sources if an offender is trying to outwit the system. Drinking coffee doesn’t change the outcome of a urine test although some people think it does,” Zimmerman said.

The drug problems started a long time ago, he says. When he was a young probation officer sitting in training, people said ‘wait until the Ritalin kids become adults. They were predicting this explosion then.”

The county also said the greater number of offenders tracks with a greater county population and a greater number of police officers. “When you put more police on the streets, they’re going to make more arrests,” adding that police average five arrests a week. “Add 100 police officers, guess what you’re going to have?” Numbers in Allen County on drug and alcohol use do correlate to national statistics, he added.

Probation works like a MASH unit

Zimmerman compares probation to a MASH unit. The idea is to move offenders down to administrative level where it’s just a matter of electronic reporting. About 800 people are on administrative.

Reducing an offender’s risk over time as in moving them from high to low risk means helping them with housing, getting a job, getting them stabilizied. But in 2021, there were 45 offenders categorized as “absconders with warrants,” just less than one percent.

Offenders also pay for ankle monitors at $18 a day and for programs.

Zimmerman said offenders check into the probation office on the eighth floor of the City-Council building with a biometric check in, i.e. thumb print. The check-in lets the probation officer know they are there. The waiting room has a television installed and two officers, but Zimmerman says the department’s aim is to keep people moving in and out of the office without long wait times.

“We’re not out to punish offenders. We’re out to hold them accountable to court’s orders,” Zimmerman said. The county has more problem solving courts than any other county in Indiana and is trying to better outcomes for offenders and by extension their families.