REFLECTIONS OF A PROBATION OFFICER
"Everyone likes to think they made some real changes for people," probation officer Jeff Wilson says.
"I can't think of any one particular thing, but I think we all did a good job, as good as we could. When everybody pulls together Â— several officers, several departments and staff Â— it is a significant accomplishment to be involved in.
"It instilled a deep sense of pride in me, and I think it's a record to be proud of."
Wilson's face is mobile, moving from still cautiousness to a grin, to a concentrated thoughtfulness as he tries to describe what he's leaned and observed during 28 years as a Union/Wallowa Community Corrections probation
Wilson retired, mostly, about two weeks ago.
He chuckles at the thought, since he's been "working" on retiring for several years. He job-shared with another probation officer and has slowly been trying to reduce his hours. Even now, he says, he's working with the drunken drivers intervention program for probably at least a day a week.
All these years later, it is hard to imagine that it was a simple job posting that led Wilson to the probation department.
After graduating from high school, Jeff Wilson served a stint in the Army, finishing his 18 months in Hawaii in 1969.
He and his wife, Anita, then moved to Portland and he worked for Goodyear Tires. Another move to Enterprise set them up in tires again, before they moved to Portland to run their own business.
Wilson pauses, counting up moves in his head.
"We did like 20 major moves in a few years back then," he notes.
In 1978, the Wilsons moved east again, to Union County.
A friend here worked in the juvenile department and when he heard about a job opening in the parole and probation department, then based in Baker City and serving Wallowa, Union and Baker counties, he mentioned it to Wilson and encouraged him to apply.
Parole and probation work, Wilson confesses, "was a foreign thought."
But Wilson got the job and began working as a parole officer in April 1978.
He opened the La Grande office, now the headquarters for the Union/Wallowa Community Corrections office currently headed by Cedric Shanks.
"The case load was growing," Wilson explains.
While there were parole and probation clients who had served prison time for drug offenses then, Wilson admits more of the client caseload in the late 1970s and 1980s were for property crimes Â— burglaries and theft Â— without the amount of narcotic involvement there is now.
"It was pretty strange at first, supervising convicted criminals," Wilson remembers. "I couldn't fire them if they messed up."
He gives thanks now to his supervisors then. They, he says, provided him with "a lot of training right away" and enough supervision.
Wilson admits it wasn't an easy adaptation for him, trying to supervise and redirect convicted criminals.
"You're trying to spot areas (in their lives) that need to be improved on," he says. "A lot of it is education and employment."
And, he adds, some of his clients just had to have time to grow out of criminal behavior.
Another evolution in those convicted of crimes that he has seen is that "now offenders are getting younger."
Whatever Wilson did as his two daughters were growing up, it made a mark.
One daughter, Amber Kaatz, is working for Umatilla County as a probation officer. She is finishing putting together a grant, he says, that should fund more comprehensive early intervention programs for even younger children, less than 12 years old, who have their first brush with law enforcement.
While he isn't convinced he is ready for that much change, he believes it is needed, with all levels of law enforcement and the courts working together.
And he believes parole and probation is an excellent job, despite admitting that you can't always "win" and make a client "well."
"In every career you get frustrated. I didn't not like the job, but there were times I got frustrated," Wilson says.
But then, "there are new programs, ideas and resources being developed all the time. The whole program has changed a little bit," he says.
Part of the change, along with the growing volume of drugs, younger offenders and new criminal offenses, is also "we don't have the jail space we once did."
"It's hard to overcome a lack of funding," Wilson says.
He credits Shanks with being able to work with the budget available to meet the needs of probation officers in Union and Wallowa counties, and work with new programs as they are developed for their clients.
Not really. He worries a bit that he may have been strict with his children, but both they and his grandchildren, he says proudly, are independent individuals with good lives.
"You do the best job you can and you take responsibility," Wilson says.
But he's learned that both the clients of parole officers, and parole officers themselves, have a a job.
"It's very difficult relearning where your boundaries in life are," he points out.
He's sure his wife, Anita, worried about him at times. But she also works in the Union County court system, and he thinks she understands what kept him in the field all those years.
The Wilsons now own property in the northern part of the county, and Jeff Wilson is looking forward to doing some work there Â— if he can find the time.
"I like meeting people," he says, smiling, with a look in his eyes that promises adventures ahead. "People are always interesting, and there's always something new to learn."
How to sum up almost 30 years at a job?
"I think I did a good job, as good as I could. When everybody pulls together in a small office it is a significant accomplishment. To have been involved has instilled a deep sense of pride.
"I'm proud to be a part of that."