By Megan Poinski
After the Parole and Probation Division spent most of fiscal 2010 scrimping, saving, and watching available funds, 48 new parole and probation agents – the division’s only new hires in the fiscal year – received their badges on Thursday.
The Public Safety Education and Training Center in Sykesville was filled with excited friends, families, colleagues, and agency officials for Thursday afternoon’s graduation ceremony. The new agents — diverse in age, race and education — will be joining approximately 700 parole and probation agents around the state on Monday.
Despite years of furloughs and hiring freezes in state government, agency director Patrick McGee said the new hires show that parole and probation is a priority.
“Most other agencies can’t hire anybody,” McGee said.
Parole and Probation agents deal with about 71,000 offenders who are not in prison, but still must be closely supervised. Opening Thursday’s ceremony, Mark Vernarelli, public information officer at the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the agents are the “thin line” that protects the public by paying attention to what certain offenders who are finishing their sentences outside of prison are doing, and preventing new crimes from ever taking place.
“You are not going to be known very well as heroes, but you are,” Vernarelli told the graduates.
As the state government tried to cut spending last year, Parole and Probation did what it could to make it through the fiscal crunch unscathed. McGee said that they were fortunate — no employees were laid off.
However, there are always vacancies arising – mostly because agents’ skills make them qualified for data analysis and homeland security jobs in the federal government. When there are enough empty spots, the division usually plans a new training academy. Each year, the division usually has three different classes that graduate between 30 and 35 new agents in each, McGee said.
Because of the cash crunch, McGee waited until the end of the year to have one large academy class with the available funds. The 48 agents receiving their badges on Thursday were part of one of the largest classes the academy has had recently.
Low pay, high caseload
McGee said about 150 people were vying for a spot in the class — even though each agent will regularly deal with about 100 different clients and only be earn a starting salary of $32,000. That is about $5,000 less than an average beginning teacher in Maryland.
To become a parole and probation agent, a person must first have at least a bachelor’s degree, with 30 credit hours in the social sciences. Candidates must also pass physical, psychological and drug tests, as well as receive a high enough score on a qualifying exam. Vernarelli said that many of the agents graduating Thursday have advanced degrees as well.
After a prospective agent has passed all of the preliminary requirements, he or she then must go through a rigorous 10-week training academy in Sykesville. Eight of the 10 weeks are spent in the classroom. For two weeks, the agents work in the local offices where they will be posted full time after graduation.
On Thursday, the newly minted agents were excited about the challenges and possibilities that the job would hold. Before starting her training, Lydia Fettig was a writing instructor at American University. She said that she was drawn to becoming a parole and probation agent to help the community.
“This is an opportunity to learn more about myself and learn more about others,” Fettig said. She will be based in Gaithersburg.
Besides waiting until the end of the fiscal year to hire more agents, Parole and Probation has been taking other steps to cut costs through new technology, McGee said. One of the newest items is a device that will be installed soon at several local offices, where offenders on probation have to check in. Offenders will place their hands on the screen, which will read their hand-prints to retrieve information and record their trip to the office.