With no probation officer in Dillingham, how does supervision work in Bristol Bay?

Nov 9, 2018

Dillingham’s only probation officer retired in April. While the Division of Probation and Parole has worked to hire a replacement, the region has operated without an on-site officer for six months.

Credit Isabelle Ross/KDLG

For more than 14 years, Rex Spofford served as the only probation and parole officer for Dillingham and much of southwestern Alaska. He retired in April. Since then, Dillingham has not had an on-site probation officer. Instead, the district supervisor in Kodiak has overseen Dillingham’s cases. Amy Abbott is the Chief Probation Officer for Region One. She says that so far, this arrangement has worked.

“They do have a very competent criminal justice technician on site available to them," she said. "So if the probationers need to come in and ask for a travel pass or get direction on something they have someone they can physically check in with. And then Probation Officer Bunting follows up with any of the probation duties.”

A probation officer is responsible for supervising people on probation or parole and ensuring that they follow through with their conditions of supervision.

The Department of Corrections maintains minimum contact standards for people on probation in rural areas. They must report in writing every month and at least once over the telephone, depending on their risk level.

Dillingham's probation officer oversees an area that encompasses more than 50 villages and more than 45,000 square miles. The region begins at Lake Clark, covers Bristol Bay and extends down the Aleutian Chain. Before Spofford started his job in Dillingham, he worked as an officer in Anchorage for six months. There were major differences.

“Just the size alone of the district suggests that there were a lot of things that would present as opportunities," he said. "Lots of coordination required when you’re supervising people in 30 plus different communities with different treatment providers. Substance abuse treatment providers, specifically. Behavioral health treatment providers. With numerous courts, numerous districts. The physical challenge of supervising people in that many different locations was formidable.”

Spofford explained that a probation officer acts as a point person for those on probation and the agencies that work with them.

“As you develop those relationships, I believe you can provide a lot more direct service," he said. "The relationship building is huge. The advantages out here is that I know exactly who I needed to talk to. I know the councilors out at Jake’s Place. I know who I need to talk to at HUD. I know that if I’ve got an individual in Koliganek or somebody in Bristol Bay, I know the FSW [Family Service Worker] that’s doing those assessments, I know the VPSOs [Village Public Safety Officers] that I need to talk to. I knew the troopers and the police officers. Once you develop those relationships it’s just like any family – you can get things done much easier.”

Another difference, according to Spofford, is that officers supervising people in outlying villages rely on a broad support network. That network is made up not only of local law enforcement and organizations, but also of residents.

“You know, we used community contact persons, if you will," Spofford explained. "Folks that we could talk to, and that a person on probation or parole would identify. I would ask them during the intake, ‘Now, listen. Not your partying buddies, but who are three people that really care about you that I can call and find out how you’re doing on supervision. And invariably, most folks would find three people. It might be a teacher, it might be a former teacher, it might be a priest. Those are the people that you would reach out to and say, ‘How’s so-and-so doing on supervision?’ And so, even where there were no law enforcement officers of VPSOs, which has become quite frankly a significant percentage of those communities now, you’d always have somebody.” 

Since Spofford retired, Abbott says that Dillingham’s criminal justice technician has been the local contact for people on probation, acting as the liaison between the Kodiak district supervisor, local treatment agencies and law enforcement. According to Abbot, they still rely on those local contacts.

“In communities where there are no law enforcement resources, we definitely rely on community contact people. Folks that work in the treatment arena or family members. So we have a pretty solid plan of supervision in the rural area,” she said. 

Currently, the caseload for Dillingham hovers around 30. That isn’t high; caseloads are in the fifties in regions like Bethel and Palmer. Still, Spofford said that it is imperative that Region One has a permanent officer.  

“I’m really looking forward to them getting an officer assigned, because having someone in the community that can actually see, that knows what’s going on is important. Because you’re there. You’ve got presence, people know you’re in town. It’s invaluable,” he said.

Dillingham is about to get a new probation officer. Abbott said that the department is in the final stages of a lengthy hiring process to bring someone on board.

Contact the author at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-5281.