Twenty-one volunteers have begun working in a unique program designed to help overworked probation officers supervise criminals.
For at least 20 hours each month, the volunteers will interview people on probation, visit their homes, do background checks and file paperwork.
The volunteers were sworn in recently as reserve deputy probation officers in the Los Angeles County Probation Department's Long Beach office, which also serves Signal Hill, Lakewood and much of the South Bay, including San Pedro, Wilmington and Redondo Beach.
"The reserves will do some of the things that the probation officers just don't have time to do," said Probation Department spokeswoman Susan Turner.
The program, said to be the first of its kind in the country, is aimed at providing some relief to one of the most overburdened county departments, officials said.
Probation officers oversee at least 300 cases each. They typically must limit interviews with probationers to 15 minutes or less. Officers say they have little time for impromptu home visits or for tracking down convicts who fail to appear for an appointment.
Probation officer Carrie Swain, for example, oversees about 350 high-risk offenders in San Pedro, Wilmington and Harbor City. She interviews about 85 each month, keeping in touch with the rest through phone calls and mail-in cards.
Each week, three or four of the offenders are no-shows. Under ideal conditions, Swain would search for them. She also would make home visits part of her routine. But Swain said she doesn't have time. "I don't do too many home visits," she said. "It's just not feasible."
Volunteers will help with home visits, although they will not be asked to go to parts of town that are considered dangerous, said Paul Janich, chairman of the Probation Department's reserve committee.
Although many of their duties will be similar to those of a probation officer, volunteers can't make arrests or sign court reports. They will also be supervised by probation officers. "We're not trying to replace (probation officers)," Janich said.
The volunteer program is patterned after programs run by sheriff's and police departments, which supplement their work forces with reserve officers who do the less-dangerous tasks.
The reserve deputy probation officers include a teacher, a retired general contractor and the president of an automobile dealership. Volunteers must be at least in their junior year of college.
For many, it's an opportunity to get a close-up look at the criminal justice system. At least half said they also hope the experience will improve their chances of getting permanent jobs in law enforcement.
Theodore Engel, for example, is a Cal State Long Beach criminal justice student who said he aims to land a job as an agent with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Rosy Chan, a law student at USC, served as an intern for two years in the Long Beach probation office. Chan said she became a volunteer because the on-the-job training can teach her things she won't find in a textbook.
Bruce Sakamoto, a recent college graduate working as a restaurant manager in Costa Mesa, said he volunteered because he wants a job as a probation officer, and the competition is fierce. Sakamoto, who also has interned the past two years, said he doesn't object to working for no pay. "They're teaching us," he said, "and that's invaluable."
If successful, the Long Beach pilot program will be expanded throughout the county, officials said.
In a ceremony recently before friends and relatives in the Long Beach courthouse, the volunteers received their badges from Barry J. Nidorf, the county's chief probation officer.
"I welcome you," Nidorf told the volunteers, who received 40 hours of classroom training. "I congratulate you, and I hope we don't burn you out with all the work we have for you."
Nidorf noted that probation officers' workloads have increased in the last decade while the number of officers has decreased.
In Los Angeles County, about 2,800 probation officers oversee more than 90,000 adults and more than 18,000 juveniles on probation. Ten years ago, the county had about 3,500 probation officers and about 60,000 probation cases, Turner said.
Officers who oversee offenders requiring minimal supervision handle about 2,000 cases a month, Turner said. Officers who oversee juveniles have at least 100 cases a month. "It's just a horrendous number," she said.