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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Features

Probation focuses on community

Youth diversion program touted as highly successful


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

The Blaine County Probation Department uses a lot of tools to help people get back on their feet following a journey through the legal system, and one of them happens to be called The Velvet Hammer.

"There are people out there who just donít like me," said adult program manager Jodie Fuller, who bears the moniker. "I try to be tough, and when they donít come through, the hammer comes down."

Itís a nickname Fuller wears with pride, but she has a soft side, too. The probation department is there to help the people who pass through its doors, she said.

"We really care about people. Thatís why we do this job. Weíre not police officers," said Teresa Espedal, the probation departmentís chief. "The way you effect change is through relationships."

The five-member Blaine County Probation Department is the arm of the legal system that works with people convicted of misdemeanor and juvenile offenses who have been ordered by a judge to seek its services. More than half of its $250,000 budget comes from federal and state grants, and it is on the cutting edge of the trade in Idaho.

Last year, Espedal was awarded the Juvenile Administrator of the Year for Southeastern Idaho. The department has also created a youth diversion program and board to deal with first-time youth offenders. Between Oct. 1, 2002 and Sept. 30, 2003, the program diverted 73 youths from the formal court system.

Espedal and Fuller were particularly sensitive to the perception that they are police officers. They are much more than that, they said.

They work on rehabilitation, counseling and prevention. They have the ability to turn their clients toward experts who can help even more.

"You definitely want to give people the chance to get back on the right road," Fuller said. "I like to ask them about their goals and challenge them to achieve them and give them the right resources."

The vast majority of the adults who pass through the probation department have been convicted of driving under the influence, Espedal said, adding that the vast majority are not repeat offenders.

"Thereís no failure, except in no longer trying," Fuller said. "We really want to help people get better, get well and be a productive community member."

As for the juvenile program, Espedal said she believes strongly that it is more beneficial and cost-effective to work with at-risk youths before they come in contact with the legal system. Thatís why the department works closely with Youth Adult Connections, the After School Study Club, the Youth Council Circles and other programs that focus on helping kids before they get in trouble.

She also stressed that the diversion program is working.

"We believe that our diversion program has been a huge success and has diverted some juveniles from having further involvement with the juvenile justice system," she said.

Of those who have passed through the system, Espedal said she is excited with their progress and believes the entire community benefits from their success.

Under Espedalís leadership, the probation department is also continuing to turn its focus to "restorative and community justice."

"This means that the emphasis of all the work that we do with our clients is to repair the harm that was done to the victim and the community," she said.

It also means focusing on the community so that the offender has a connection and a stake in what happens within his or her community, Espedal said.

To work in that direction, probation officers are shifting the focus of some programs, conducting mediation between victims and offenders and staffing cases on a regular basis to ensure that the department is expanding its focus from the beginning of a case.

"We are excited and hopeful that this shift will move our department from viewing offenders as recipients of services and sometimes contributors to our community, to being contributors and stewards within their community," she said.

Throughout an hour-long interview at the departmentís new offices in Blaine Countyís new Courthouse Annex, Espedal and Fuller threaded the discussion with the word, relationships. And that is why they do what they do. It is about the people, they said.

"We definitely love it," Espedal said. "We all love it."


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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.





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