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Probation Officers’ Lost and Found

You couldn’t blame every probation officer on the county payroll for having a heart of stone. They’ve heard it all, from every crook and small-timer and smooth-talker who assured them their life of crime was behind them.

Next thing you know, back in the joint.

Why shouldn’t they be jaded?

Because there’s always hope.

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“I met him when he was 13 years old, and he was a wannabe gang member,” Tom Wright recalls in his office Monday. Now an Orange County Probation Department administrator, Wright spent 16 years on the street working cases. He’s telling me about a kid from a hard-working, blue-collar family who drifted into heroin use. That led to several stints in county jail and a potential irrevocable ticket to oblivion.

One day, however, he showed up for a probation session with a Labrador pup. What’s that all about, Wright asked. “That’s my dog,” the boy said. Wright told him he’d need to clean up his act if he was going to take care of a dog.

“That dog meant survival to him,” Wright says. “He’s still got that dog, and he’s never violated the law again.”

That story goes back many years and was the kind I’d asked Wright to tell me. I’ve had wayward cons on the brain after seeing a funny and articulate inmate spend an hour on the witness stand last week. What struck me -- and in a surprisingly emotional way -- was how I felt seeing the guy shackled after he’d amused the jury and audience with his natural wit and storytelling ability.

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What a waste, I thought to myself. What a waste of a life to be 50, with that level of social skill, and to have spent most of the last 30 years in prison. What if that guy had just chosen a different route for his life?

So, I imposed on Wright, and he also invited Shawn Small, another county administrator and a former longtime probation officer.

Yes, they have their radar up on everyone; theirs is not a job for the naive.

“Some of the hardest cases to supervise are those people you actually like,” Small says. “Every once in a while, you get someone who you say that, ‘Outside of this circumstance, I might actually be friends with this person.’ And you hope for the best of them.”

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The two seem somewhat amused by how much I was taken by the testifying inmate last week. I realize they’ve seen the type before -- the smoothie who might be hiding a sinister side.

Impossible to know, they said, if he was just putting on a show in court or demonstrating that, at 50, he’d finally wised up and could fit in society.

Therein lies the perpetual task of the probation officer. Unlike cops, probation officers want to salvage guys’ lives. They get to know the dealers and burglars and, on some occasions, help turn their lives around.

“I always look for a spark,” Wright says. For some, it’s that they love their mother. For others, it’s that they believe in God. Wright sometimes will zero in on the con’s family and try to get him to see past his self-centered view. “I challenge them that way. I say, ‘You’ve been to the joint. It’s an animal’s life. Do you really want to go back?’ ”

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Small and Wright savor the memories of the guys they’ve helped, the ones who still phone from time to time. In the next breath, Small laments that, after getting to know their probationers over a few years’ time, they often don’t hear about their later success in life.

Good probation officers generally can tell what’s what, but no one is infallible. Small tells of a guy he’d come to like, won over by his personality and his insistence that he was turning his life around.

Things went well, Small says, until he decided to visit the aunt’s house where the guy was supposedly living. Turns out he wasn’t there. “We found out he actually was living a double life,” Small says. “He had a residence he never told us about and a separate family we didn’t know about and he was selling drugs out of the house, which no one knew about.”

Police eventually pinched him. “He completely had conned me,” Small says. “Almost to the end.”

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Although it’s not a business for softies, I ask Small how he took the news.

“That one kind of hurt,” he says.

*

Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana .parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.

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