2007-09-05 / Front Page

Taking it to the street

By Elizabeth Billips Associate Editor

Taking it to the stree

      STAF -  ELIZABETH BILIPS Parole officer Leah Lewis checks a parolee's electronic monitoring ankle bracelet. The device helps officers monitor their parolee's comings and goings. STAF - ELIZABETH BILIPS Parole officer Leah Lewis checks a parolee's electronic monitoring ankle bracelet. The device helps officers monitor their parolee's comings and goings. Leah Lewis spends her life with convicted felons.

Fifty-two of them, actually.

She tracks them down with the resolve of an oncoming train, wheeling her Impala down rutted dirt roads and into graffiti streaked neighborhoods.

She's armed well.

Just her smile and her Glock.

The 26-year-old parole officer cranks up the AC and settles in for four hours of unannounced visits and drug screens.

There are at least a dozen parolees she needs to see, and they're scattered like seeds across the 835 square miles of Burke County.

Eric isn't on her list, but there he is drudging toward the convenience store not 50 yards away.

Lewis hits the brakes and takes him by surprise.

"How you doing?" she asks before delving straight in. "You get that job?"

His head drops, and Lewis knows.

Above, Leah Lewis and supervisor Carl DeLoach drive hundreds of miles each week to keep tabs on parolees in Burke County. With nearly a third of the county's parolees under supervision for drug convictions, random drug screens, at right, have become a great tool for deterring relapses. Above, Leah Lewis and supervisor Carl DeLoach drive hundreds of miles each week to keep tabs on parolees in Burke County. With nearly a third of the county's parolees under supervision for drug convictions, random drug screens, at right, have become a great tool for deterring relapses. There's another job opening near Warner Robins. A better one, Eric says.

"Good," Lewis says, taking down his contact's number. Tomorrow, she'll check his story.

It's a serious business as far as she's concerned.

"If they don't work, there's too much time to get in trouble," she says.

Before Lewis can get back to her car, a young woman rushes her with clicking heels and open arms. "Congratulate me," she yells as her children wave to Lewis through their car windows. "I did it ... I got the job."

That makes Lewis' job all the better. "I feel good ... like I'm making a difference," she says.

Lewis and fellow parole officer Geoff Rohrs split the Burke County caseload down the middle.

-  ELIZABETH BILLIPS - ELIZABETH BILLIPS That means roughly 50 parolees each, mostly men in their 20s and 30s.

Some of them robbed convenience stores. Some sold drugs.

There's hope for all of them, if you ask Lewis.

"People can change," she says. "I've seen it.

But Jonathan hasn't. Not yet, anyway.

Lewis' supervisor Carl DeLoach has come along for the ride. There's a bone to pick inside the slant-floored trailer they walk toward shoulder to shoulder.

The stench is always there, but the summer heat has magnified it.

It wafts out the front door as DeLoach escorts Jonathan to the bathroom for a drug screen.

Normally, Leah would have done that herself - a task that puts some male parolees on edge.

"They just have to get used to it," she says matter-of-factly. "There isn't a choice."

The pair walks Jonathan out front while they wait for the drug screen stick to give them the answer they dread.

"Go ahead and tell me upfront." DeLoach says before the plus-sign begins to darken." When was the last time you used?"

Jonathan jams his hands in his pockets and glances back toward his trailer. A toddler presses his nose flat against the glass while a newborn mews like a kitten.

"Three days ago," Jonathan answers. "Crack."

Jonathan could have been cuffed and taken to jail on the spot. Drug use violates the terms of his parole, and both Lewis and DeLoach are certified law enforcement officers.

But their goal is to help him help himself. Jail comes in when that doesn't work.

"You're not doing well at all," DeLoach says, shaking his head.

Lewis isn't surprised.

"I saw you propped up against the side of the EZ Shop when you were supposed to be in substance abuse class," she says as Jonathan looks away again. "I'm telling you ... with my own two eyes, I saw you."

A formal reprimand is put on Jonathan's record, and the officers agree to give him a final chance.

If he's not at his 4 p.m. class, a warrant will be issued.

Two hours later, Jonathan sits in the classroom at Wimberly House, straightening the collar on a clean shirt and flipping through his workbook.

Who knows how long it will last. But Lewis and DeLoach want to give it a try.

"Parole isn't just checking on you and getting onto you," DeLoach says to the whole bunch of them. "And it's not about kicking you in the rearend and locking you up ... it's about making sure you're equipped for life."

Shawn is a different story. He's come to the meeting too, but with a different agenda.

It's his last day on parole and a cause for celebration.

DeLoach opens a big bakery box and serves up squares of cake for everyone.

"Now don't come back," Lewis says jokingly as she hands Shawn a plate.

He's not planning to.

It been a long road for Shawn, and he's the first to admit it.

He got hooked on drugs when he was 19 and put his probation officers through hell.

"I wasn't paying, wasn't reporting," he said. "So I got sent to prison."

Now, at age 30, he's spent the last five years on parole.

"It was the worst experience and the best experience of my life," he says, describing 60 months of visitations, rules and classes. "I knew I had to get myself together, and the discipline was good for me."

He boxes the rest of his cake. He'll take it home to his family - the people he now chooses to spend his time with.

Handshakes and backslaps go all around.

Lewis gets the last goodbye and a personal thank you.

"I don't want to be affiliated with you ever again," he laughs as he heads home.

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