“This next case is my worst nightmare,” says Hampden County Superior Court probation officer Lorna Burt as she steers her Nissan Pathfinder off the main drag onto a side road of a small Western Massachusetts milltown. “Jack,” who is 32, was convicted in 1990 of a second offense of indecent assault and battery on a child–he liked to cruise around in his car looking for children. He served three years of an 8- to 10-year sentence at the state prison in Walpole, and now he’s serving four years of probation. The terms include house arrest; he can only leave the home he shares with his mother for certain pre-arranged appointments, like counseling, church, work, or the weekly disc-jockey gig he has at a local college radio station. He hasn’t re-offended in the two years he’s been on probation, but Burt still has a bad feeling about the guy.

“He’s a serious sex offender, and it’s continuous,” she says. “I don’t think he’ll ever be cured. He has a thing about a child in a snowsuit.”

“And,” adds Burt, “he always answers the door half-dressed.”

Jack is one of nine men Burt will see on this February afternoon. (Their names have been changed for privacy reasons.) Some, like the convicted armed robber and suspected drug dealer in Springfield, know she’s coming; others, like the car thief in Westfield, don’t. “I like to keep them on their toes,” she says. By the end of the workday, she will have made her way through a landscape that is as bleak socially as it is physically–mostly shabby, often smoke-filled homes occupied by men who may or may not get their lives together.

Still, Burt, a 35-year-old single mother of a young son, remains remarkably upbeat about her work. “I think most people don’t see us as making a difference, but we do,” she says. “We do have a lot of people who get into treatment and don’t re-offend. People don’t see what we’re doing, but we’re there, from the initial stage to the end.”

“Most people don’t see us as making a difference, but we do.”

Indeed, though the probation system is an integral part of the criminal justice machinery, few people know exactly what probation officers do. The 14 probation officers who work out of the Hampden County Superior Court Probation Office had a caseload in February of 648 active-risk probationers, 126 defendants out on bail, and 388 convicts who will be out on probation when released. They were also looking for people wanted on 179 outstanding warrants that have accumulated in the past 20 years.

“We get everything here,” says Chief Probation Officer Nick DeAngelis. Offenders include white-collar criminals, gangbangers, rapists, burglars, and car thieves, even a 72-year-old woman making restitution on an embezzlement conviction.

And they all need something: drug or alcohol treatment, a job, a home, counseling. P.O.s keep an eye on the big picture – where the probationer works or socializes, whether he or she is off drugs and out of trouble. And it can involve the small details–what the probationer sees when he looks out his apartment window. In the case of a sex offender, for example, it had better not be a schoolyard.

“Sex offenders require an intense amount of supervision,” DeAngelis says. “The typical profile is that he likes to live near a school, or on a children’s walking route. You have to watch everything.”

The Springfield office also has on-site drug and alcohol testing, which DeAngelis says helps keep its recidivism rate lower than others in the state. “It definitely makes a difference in the outcome,” DeAngelis says. “Many times, when we talk to the people waiting for the tests, a lot of the clients indicate that the only reason they’re clean is because they have to do a urine test.”

Lorna Burt covers all those bases, dividing her workweek between the courtroom and the road. One day she spends doing paperwork in her office. On court days, she sits at a table to the judge’s right, providing the judge with the criminal records of those appearing in court. Depending on the judge, she’ll also offer recommendations on sentencing or other background information.

During her two days on the road each week, she visits probationers in their homes, spending 15 minutes or so chatting about work, looking for evidence of drug or alcohol abuse, or warning about the dangers of a new-found friendship with an underage female.

Next to Burt’s seat is a two-inch-thick, Filofax-like loose-leaf binder with a page or two and a photograph for each of the 70 probationers she oversees. Each has a unique story, but as the afternoon wears on, several common denominators emerge: mental illness; a family heritage of drug, alcohol, or sexual abuse; little or no education; limited family support; and few job opportunities. Some guys may be too smart for their own good; others are stunningly clueless. None appears to be terribly violent or dangerous, but as a group, they’ve wreaked a good deal of havoc on the community.

Looking for signs

Her first stop is a visit to Kevin, who was convicted of rape of a child for carrying on a relationship with a 14-year-old girl. Now 24, he’s a lost soul–his mother dead of a drug overdose, his father who knows where. He received a suspended sentence of three to five years in Walpole, and is on probation for three years. He served some time before being transferred to a hospital psychiatric unit, where he was diagnosed with depression and schizophrenia, and put on lithium. Now he’s living alone in a small apartment in Westfield.

Unfortunately for him, says Burt, the town is also a catch basin for troubled teens who flow in from the hilltowns, offering temptation to a young man whose probation terms include staying away from girls and boys under the age of 16.

The decor in Kevin’s apartment is spare: a couch, shag rug, mattress on the floor. On the wall he’s drawn a sprawling self-portrait and signed his name to it. He’s sitting at his kitchen table writing when Burt drops by.

Burt takes a look around the apartment for bottles or drug paraphernalia. She won’t sit down the whole afternoon. Somewhere she learned that probation officers shouldn’t sit on a soft couch; you never know if there’s a hypodermic needle or a weapon stuffed in between the cushions. She asks how things are going; he talks about the progress he’s making with his therapist, how he’s starting to see what it is that makes him pursue young girls.

Burt’s heard that he’s been seeing a 17-year-old hilltown girl who has taken up residence in a local shelter. She’s several months pregnant, and has been in and out of state Department of Social Services supervision. She’s known as a “CHINS” kid (Child in Need of Supervision). Kevin says he let her spend the night at his apartment when she had no place else to go.

“Do you really think it’s a good idea to be around someone who could cause you trouble?” she says. He looks down at the floor and admits it was a mistake. She warns him not to have her in the apartment again. Then she’s off.

“With him, I’m part mother, part therapist,” she says later. “He hasn’t grown up, but how can he? He has no support. His own father won’t help him out. The one thing he realizes now is that he can’t do drugs and not take his lithium. But hanging with a 17-year-old CHINS kid, he’s in a no-win situation.”

Burt pulls up at a modest, neatly kept home in the next town, Agawam, where she’s paying a surprise visit to a young man in his 20s. His offense was breaking into a building and breaking into and entering a car, and he was drunk at the time he committed the crimes. He’s got a job now (he shows her the pay stub), he’s into a treatment program, and he’s living in the basement of his parents’ home, which to Burt is a good sign. Kids get into trouble when they try to do too much at once, like getting their own apartment without enough money. The bad sign is out in the driveway: a gleaming, white, late-model muscle car.

The family support, the job, a certain fear of the Lord in this kid makes him appear to be Burt’s most redeemable probationer this afternoon. But she’s spotted a glint of recklessness behind the Eddie Haskell demeanor. As she pulls out, she nods her head at the driveway and muses that he’ll probably offend again, maybe even hurt someone. The Camaro, after all, was built for speed, not for comfort.

She spots a glint of recklessness behind the Eddie Haskell demeanor.

“He’s been in jail, but everything is still fun and games for this kid,” she says. “He doesn’t see down the road what will happen if he continues to drink and drive. Even though he’s off probation in May, something may happen after that, especially if he moves out on his own.”

Later, it’s on to Jack’s house, a ramshackle affair missing some of its brown and gray asphalt tiles, on the edge of an empty lot in Agawam. She treads gingerly up the decrepit wooden steps and past several weeks’ worth of trash on the porch, and knocks on the door.

A few minutes later, sure enough, Jack appears from upstairs, clad only in a pair of shorts. “Go get some clothes on!” she admonishes him before she enters the house. He’s played this scene dozens of times, but still seems a little sheepish, like he forgot. “Oh, sure,” he says, then runs upstairs, and comes back wearing a tattered blue T-shirt.

Jack greets her in almost a childlike fashion–it’s hard to believe he’s a sexual predator. Once she stopped by and found several snowsuits in the hallway and she told him to throw them in the trash. A therapist had apparently told him it was better to work out his frustrations with the snowsuits than to pursue the children. On the wall in the living room, circa 1960’s photographs hang on the wall–airbrushed, professionally colored photos of two happy boys; one, maybe five, with a 2-year-old in his arms. The house is dark and smells of cat.

They talk about his job at the local Stop and Shop–it’s going O.K., and so are the radio show and church activities. He’s met a woman his own age at the church, but it’s nothing serious. Burt would like Jack to cultivate relationships with women his own age, but it’s been tough.

Then it’s time to go. As she pulls out of the driveway, Jack runs out onto the porch and yells. He forgot to ask her: Would it be O.K. if he went to the radio station at a time other than his shift? “No,” she says. “O.K., I just thought I’d ask,” he replies and waves goodbye, still smiling.

“He’s like my son, always pushing me,” she says as she throws the car into reverse.

Qualifications

Probation officers are required to have at least a year’s experience in social services and a four-year college degree. Burt’s background is typical: She attended Northeastern University, and graduated from American International College with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. She worked for five years as an institutional parole officer at the state prison in Concord and the Charles Street Jail in Boston. Her mother works as a court officer in the Hampden County courts. She wants to go to law school.

Burt worked for several years in Westfield District Court, where she supervised between 200 and 250 cases. In district court she saw mostly alcohol-related cases; in superior court there’s a lot of alcohol and drug abuse, mostly cocaine. Though superior court is where more serious crimes end up, she says superior court is a piece of cake compared to district court.

“It’s like night and day,” she says. “It’s harder to supervise in district court because there are so many people and mostly driving under the influence. In superior court, you’re dealing with more serious offenders, but you can keep track of them better. When people are on probation in superior court, they know it’s for real.”

Burt’s caseload includes 60 high-risk cases, 12 bail supervisions, and between 60 and 65 others who have been sentenced but who are in jail. She doesn’t have to supervise them, but she does keep track of the dates they’ll be released and start probation.

Most of the cases Burt sees these days can be traced to mental illness, drugs, or alcohol, and getting probationers into treatment is usually a first priority. On-site drug testing is a union issue: Many probation officers don’t like the idea of supervising urine tests. But DeAngelis says in his office, 10 of the 14 officers get involved with drug testing because, like Burt, they feel so strongly that it makes a difference. “Once you get a person into treatment, it’s so much easier, their eyes open up a little,” she says. “Especially if it’s mandatory. They need the stick.”

Burt says she’d like to be able to spend more time in the field, and that is likely to happen soon because of a couple of new programs in Hampden County. Operation PROFILE is a probation-police partnership based on Boston’s Operation Nightlight that takes probation officers into cities like Holyoke, Springfield, and Chicopee during the evening hours.

The Community Justice Program links probation officers with local community policing programs to get them into the community in the early morning to make sure people are going to work, and in the late afternoon to be sure they’re home when their kids get home from school.

One benefit of the Community Justice Program, says Nick DeAngelis, is that it allows the probation departments in superior, juvenile, district, and federal courts to share information and improve supervision of probationers.

Burt thinks it will also help give the public a better idea of exactly what she does all day.

“When people see us out there more, they’ll have a better understanding of what we do.”

“When people see us out there more and more with the community policing, they’ll have a better understanding of what we do,” she says. “At one point, we were always in the office, but now getting out there, making contact with other agencies, it’s going to make a big difference and people will see it.”

It takes a metropolis

Springfield used to be called the city of homes, in part because of streets like Leon’s, lined with large, once beautiful Victorian houses. Today it’s spotty; some look rundown, others are boarded up and abandoned, one is being renovated. Leon’s stands out for its fortress-like quality–it has a fence within a fence, and three rottweilers are chained up out back.

Leon was on probation for armed robbery, but got into more trouble recently when he was busted for selling cocaine near a school. Police confiscated several thousand dollars in cash and some drugs. The day after his arrest, he hired a prominent Springfield lawyer to defend him. Still, when Burt asks about the drug charge, Leon shakes his head. “All lies,” he says. End of discussion.

“So, are you taking your wife out for Valentine’s Day?” she asks.

“I don’t have any money!” he says with a rueful smile as he escorts her out the front door.

It if takes a village to raise a child, it takes a metropolis to supervise a sex offender. A cottage industry has grown up to treat and track sex offenders, who represent between 10 and 15 percent of the caseload in Hampden County. Ten professionals supervise Henry, Burt’s next client, and five of them are sitting around the kitchen table in Henry’s apartment when she arrives: his two Department of Mental Retardation live-in managers–he has 24 hour supervision–a supervisor from DMR, and a human rights coordinator to be sure that Henry’s rights are not being violated. Much of her job involves working with DMR to enforce restrictions on clients.

“We tend to take away a lot of his rights, like listening to the stereo, watching TV,” Burt says, but it’s not only her decision. “His therapist can’t make restrictions–it comes from the court–so DMR tells me what needs to be done, and I enforce it to make sure he complies.”

He was convicted of rape of a child by force and indecent assault and battery, and he’s required to remain under DMR supervision. Henry was sentenced to five to seven years in Walpole, but the sentence was suspended and he got five years’ probation. His time is up in 2001.

Henry is often angry at Burt because she’s always taking something away from him. He sometimes has problems with the guys who are supervising him, and can occasionally get violent. But today, the mood is lighter. It’s nearly Valentine’s Day and he’s cooking a Valentine’s dinner for a woman he hopes will soon be his girlfriend.

“How’s he doing, O.K.?” Burt asks one of the guys who lives with Henry.

“O.K.,” he says, smiling and nodding at Henry, who drops his head and laughs an exaggerated laugh. “He’s getting things under control.”

The afternoon never feels unsafe until she pulls up to a weary-looking three-family at the dead end of a Springfield side street. She’s looking for Juan, who’s on probation for stealing cars, but who seems to have disappeared. The shades are drawn, and as Burt walks up the steps someone–she can’t see who–steals a quick look out the window. “Every time I stop here a different person answers the door,” Burt says. She raps at the door and a young woman with a cigarette between her exotically painted nails answers.

“Every time I stop here a different person answers the door.”

“I’m looking for Juan,” Burt says. “Is he around?”

“I haven’t seen him,” the woman replies.

“Well, he was supposed to come in last week,” Burt says, “and I haven’t seen him. When he comes back, tell him if I don’t hear from him there’s going to be a warrant out for him, O.K.?”

“O.K.,” says the young woman as she closes the door.

Burt could have pushed it but didn’t. She’s never really sure what she may be walking into when she knocks on a door. “There could have been a drug deal going on, or who knows what else,” she says. “I have a vest, but I usually only wear it when I’m out at night.”

It hasn’t exactly been an episode of “Cops,” but Burt’s job is to make sure those kinds of events don’t happen. She worries that she might misjudge a client, especially in domestic violence cases, and someone might get hurt because of her mistake. But she says there are usually few surprises in her business.

Lorna Burt is aware of the criticisms of the probation system, and the public perception that it’s a “get out of jail free” card. What people don’t see, she says, and what doesn’t make the papers, are the cases in which probation worked.

“There are some people who can be helped, or at least guided in the right direction to get their own help, stay in counseling, or hold onto a job,” she says. “For everyone who doesn’t stay out of trouble, you have two or three who are doing well. To know that someone got off probation with no other offenses, that’s rewarding. When you don’t see them again, you know you’ve succeeded.”

B.J. Roche, a contributing writer for CommonWealth, lives in Western Massachusetts.