Prison cleaned her up, but she didn’t know if it would stick. Prior attempts to stay off pain medicine had failed and she always found herself falling back into her old ways.

Luckily, the Gila County Probation Department is changing the way it handles parolees. For the first time, she felt she had someone to help her through.

“For the first time, I felt like I had people on my side rooting for me,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I have a probation officer, but a friend.”

The Gila County Probation Department has changed how it manages juveniles and adults placed in diversion or on probation.

In Arizona, 1 in 62 adults is under community supervision, higher than the national average of 1 in 55 adults, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts. In the U.S., the number of people on probation increased from 1.1 million in 1980 to more than 4.5 million today.

In Gila County, the probation department is reinventing its re-entry programs in an effort to curb recidivism. So far, it looks like it is working.

Since Arizona’s shift to evidence-based supervision in 2008, Gila County has seen a nearly 40 percent reduction in probation revocations and a 64 percent drop in new felony convictions.

Many probationers seem to have set themselves on a new path of recovery and responsibility, making it less likely they will sink deeper into the criminal justice system, say officials.

That reflects a big change in philosophy said Chief Probation Officer Steven Lessard, who entered the field in 1991. At that time, probation officers usually met for a few minutes with offenders to monitor their employment, community service hours and drug treatment compliance. If they failed, they went back to jail or prison. This did little to affect change and in some cases did more damage, he said.

Officers are now encouraged to help offenders reintegrate into society by taking a more active interest in their lives.

Research has focused attention on practices that have worked with kids and adult offenders, building trusting alliances with probationers where they can discuss their problems, get advice and if they are struggling, be honest and take responsibility for their behaviors to avoid jail.

Probation officers coach juveniles and adults to help them succeed as productive members of the community.

Lessard has urged officers to mentor and coach while still holding them to the conditions of their probation. This requires meaningful contact, time and energy.

Ken Dillman, a detention officer and community work service coordinator, said they now actively engage and take the time to ask how things are going and find out when a probationer is struggling.

This role as mentor and not just supervisor is making a difference.

Chief Lessard said recidivism has dropped in Gila County and across the state as a result of the new approach.

Anecdotally, officers have seen some people make huge changes.

For one woman, it saved her life.

Donna (the Roundup is not using her real name) was hooked on prescription painkillers in 2013 after a back injury. She found doctors readily prescribed the narcotic medicine, with frequent refills. After several years, her tolerance had grown. Once she couldn’t get enough legally, she turned to street drugs. Her life spiraled out of control.

“I couldn’t get off of the drugs, even though I was seeing friends pass away,” she said.

The law eventually caught up with her and she was sentenced to 2.5 years prison and five years of probation on two drug charges.

She went through a painful detox while in prison, but she now believes that helped prepare her for finally succeeding in rehab. When she got out, Donna vowed she would never go back to prison or touch drugs again.

She does not know if she could have kept that promise without the help of her probation officer.

That does not mean Donna could skip out on her drug tests or community service.

“If you are not going to do what you should do they will be on you,” she said.

Donna thrived on the structure that probation offered. She attended classes at Community Bridges and actually participated. She completed a book that had her analyze her life and the choices that had led her here.

She started her community service working with Don Roughan, juvenile detention officer and Dillman. They set her up with work at the community garden and a local thrift store.

“I have met some really wonderful people who are so different from my life before,” she said. “I used to hang out with the worse of the worse and now I am around people who treat me like a person.”

The probation department is collaborating with groups like the Payson Church of the Nazarene and Payson’s Community Garden. At the church, parolees trim trees and bushes, remove brush and generally help Firewise the large property.

At the community garden, they are pulling weeds and helping with maintenance. They are also learning about how to start their own garden at home and grow healthy food, said Kenny Evans, who runs the garden.

Outside community service, probation officers are working with offenders to get housing, drug treatment and jobs.

Dan Lowe, manager of the northern probation department, said community service offers a tool to teach life skills and instill hope. It is no longer used as a punitive tool, like working on a chain gang.

Pastor Rich Richey and the Nazarene Church have welcomed the offenders. The work not only cleans up the property, it builds connections.

Evans says he has seen offenders blossom while working at the garden. Many started as shy and distant, but soon opened up and started talking to people in the garden.

“They went from being in their own world to seeing a world beyond prison,” he said.

“It is a self-worth thing,” Lessard said. “They don’t feel like they fit in with society.”

When people feel disconnected from the community, they do not care if their actions hurt others.

When people start to take pride in their work, it changes them.

John (the Roundup is not using his real name) did not care about the community when he was selling drugs because he barely cared about his own life.

He grew up in Payson and started using ecstasy as a teenager at parties.

He moved to the Valley and started using prescription painkillers. From there, he tried everything from heroin to meth.

He saw he could buy heroin for $30 a gram in the Valley and sell it for $200 a gram in Payson. Police arrested him several times, including in Payson and Yavapai County.

He was eventually sentenced to four years in prison. John said it took six months in prison before he started “thinking normally again.”

“I realized I was missing out on so much while I was on drugs,” he said.

Upon his release, John started working off his 700 hours of community service. He had been on probation before, but this time he said his probation officers provided far more support. They helped him with rehab and finding a place to work his hours off.

“They want to help us get clean,” he said. “I don’t think I would be doing as well without their help.”

A key step toward building a successful life is workforce training.

If probationers take GED classes, they will soon get hour for hour credit toward their community service.

Read more about how the probation department is working with juveniles after the closure of the juvenile detention center in Globe in part II of our coverage.

Donna said she no longer thinks of herself mostly as a drug user, but instead identifies as a home-based business owner active in the community. She has a new support group and goals to work toward.

“I want to do good. I want to be a good person,” Donna said. “My ultimate goal is to make sure I am OK and that I continue to work on myself mentally and remain sober. That will always be a struggle, but I have this structure in my life.”

Contact the reporter at abechman@payson.com

Covers breaking news, cops, courts, fire and the Town of Payson.

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