Retired Judge Simon Remembers
He characterizes the probation officials he dealt with as true professionals. “What impressed me was that they seemed to really care for the probationers they were responsible for, a tough love kind of thing. They were very pleased when a probationer completed probation and they’d come before me and present that person. When I discharged probationers they had completed their term and underwent the drug or anger management or whatever, you could see the relationship between the probation officer and the probationer.
“One thing I learned early on was that in district court, it’s often the question for judges, ‘In or Out?’ Are you going to incarcerate the person, or put him on the street or on probation? But what I heard and soon learned from experience was that by the time a person gets to superior court, he usually has a record. They’ve graduated from smaller crimes to serious crimes. It’s no longer a question of ‘In or Out?’ but ‘How long?’ and, ‘Do you add probation to the sentence?’ With probation, there was some notion that they could be helped, as opposed to a person you just needed to put away.
“There were any number of cases where the girlfriend was left behind in the apartment by the boyfriend the drug dealer, who’s scrammed, so when the police arrive she’s there with bags of cocaine in the closet, and it’s her house. So she forfeits the house, she’s charged with possession, and I have to send her away for one year. Or three. Those were not fun cases.”
As to the wide discretion judges enjoy on violations, “If they had a good explanation why they hadn’t seen their probation officer or missed their urine test, you could continue the terms of probation and say, ‘Don’t do it again.’ You could extend probation, say by six months or a year. You could tighten up the conditions, put an ankle bracelet on somebody. You could revoke probation and put back the original sentence. You could also chop that up; you could sentence them to sixty days of that sentence and have the rest hanging over their heads. But it became a self-perpetrating thing.”
Simon reports that if the violation is not merely technical but substantive, involving a re-arrest and even another conviction, the associated term of incarceration winds up as another dish in the smorgasbord. But he notes the risk involved in selecting one of the harsher options.
“There was a slight guy, wiry, young. When it became clear that I was going to reinstate his sentence and send him away, it took four court officers to get control of him. These were big burly officers, one of whom went out on disability after that incident.”
“There was always that concern in the courtroom,” Simon recalls. “You have to rely on the probation officers to have their antenna up and be in communication with you about a problem. You don’t know how people are going to react.”