Georgia is pairing up parole officers to work out of their cars instead of an office, a new strategy that officials say is pioneering and not only saves money, but allows the officers to spend more time working with people in the community.
Over the last year or so, the state has closed most of its parole offices and equipped officers with laptops, smartphones and mobile printers, turning their state vehicles into mobile offices. The plan stresses visiting parolees in their communities rather than having them come into an office, said Michael Nail, executive director of parole for the state.
"It puts us out in the community," he said. "It puts us where the offender lives and works and attends treatment."
No other state has eliminated physical parole offices, and Georgia has been asked to give a presentation on the "virtual office" at a national parole conference in July, said State Board of Pardons and Parole spokesman Steve Hayes.
Carl Wicklund, executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association, said a lot of departments are moving toward more mobility and technology is making that possible, but he's not aware of anyone else eliminating offices to the extent that Georgia is.
"It will be interesting to see how it works out for them," he said.
Georgia parole officials began thinking about cutting down on office space a couple of years ago when they realized the space wasn't used much because officers were generally out in the field, Nail said. They originally envisioned phasing out the offices over three years, but after budget cuts set in they cut the timeline down to one year.
The savings amounted to about $1.5 million in the first year, which is money that can be reinvested in programs or technology, Nail said.
Officers now work in pairs not only for safety, but so one can read up on a case on the way to a visit or enter information about a just-completed visit, which also saves time previously spent in the office, Nail said. It also allows them to work more flexible hours because they aren't tied to typical government office hours of 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Those hours frequently aren't convenient for parolees who are expected to keep a job, and the increased flexibility allows for evening or weekend visits, Nail said.
The state has about 300 parole officers working 84 cases apiece, on average, Hayes said.
It used to be that the first stop for an offender who was released from prison was the parole office. Now, offenders go home and a parole officer visits them there. That allows family members or other people living in the home to be there for the initial meeting with the parole officer so they can understand what is expected, Nail said.
Nail said officer feedback on the changes has been overwhelmingly positive. The Parole Association of Georgia, which represents present and past employees of the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, didn't return an email and Facebook message seeking comment.
Martin Horn, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former executive director of parole in New York, said it's a good move to have parole officers out in the community as much as possible. But he said he has some concerns about the idea.
"I don't dislike the idea in concept, but I think that it's all in the execution," he said. "Parole officers are not traveling salesmen."
There are times when an office is useful — for holding confidential meetings with parolees, counseling or research — and sometimes it's the safest place for an officer to take someone into custody if that becomes necessary, Horn said. But making sure officers work in pairs, as Georgia is doing, and ensuring they have proper safety training can alleviate the safety concerns, he said.
From a starting point of 48 offices, the state is now down to nine. Six of those are in free or state-owned space, so there's no cost to keep them. They now serve as hubs where the department can receive shipments and hold meetings. The remaining three offices had leases that would be costly to break and will be closed as the leases expire, Nail said.