WKYT Investigates | Low pay, high turnover for probation and parole officers ‘danger to public safety’

LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - The head of Kentucky’s probation and parole officers fears low pay is making it tough for the state to recruit and retain officers as the number of offenders they need to keep track of tops 47,000.

With just 644 officers across the state, WKYT found Kentucky has just one officer for every 73 offenders.

"That presents a danger to public safety," said Johnathan Hall, director of the division of probation and parole for the Kentucky Department of Corrections. “It makes it more difficult for the offenders and the officers."

A group of potential new probation and parole officers is going through their four-week training in LaGrange, learning the basics of a career that is struggling to meet the state's needs. By the time the group finishes its first year on the job, a third of them will quit.

"Pay is one thing that would definitely fix it," Hall told WKYT’s Miranda Combs.

The starting salary for a probation and parole officer in Kentucky is $31,000, which is $10,000 below the average police officer.

The goal of probation and parole officers is to enhance public safety by ensuring offenders leaving prison or avoiding doing time behind bars follow the law and reintegrated back into society. The sheer number of offenders to each officer makes it tough.

"I would be lying if I said that you could know every single detail about these folks. You just have to do the best you can do," said Josh King, a Lexington probation and parole officer, who is considered a veteran after five years on the job.

During a recent home visit, King met with an offender who is now spending the rest of his 23-year sentence out on parole. He and King have had their ups and downs.

"It's good when I'm not high. While I'm high is when it goes bad. They don't like me so much," the offender told WKYT about his relationship with King. "He's the one that says whether I go back to jail or not. So if our relationship is good, then I know what he expects of me."

King’s role as officer requires him to wear many hats. He regularly trains at a police firing range and at times has to trade his police look for a counselor’s demeanor.

"There are no two days that are the same," Director Hall told WKYT.

When Hall took over as director of probation and parole last year, King's Lexington office had a 50 percent turnover rate.

"That means half of the officers working there hadn't even been with us for a year. One of the things I always say is it takes over a year for someone to really learn the job of a probation and parole officer because there's so many details and so many roles they play," Hall said.

Battling the turnover and learning the ins and outs of a new group of offenders is tough for the officers.

"Every time you get an officer that leaves, a new officer has to come in and learn everything about 100 different people. That's a daunting task," King said.

While the job demands a lot both physically and mentally, one of the biggest challenges for the state is retaining officers because what's coming their way is an over-loaded prison system with about 25,000 inmates that will at some point be released to probation and parole.

"If we better compensated for what they are asked to do, it would go a long way to helping retain staff," Hall said.

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