“Totally by accident!”
That’s how Susan Rice, 48, starts to respond when asked how she got into probation work.
The “accident” occurred during her senior year at DePauw University, when she did a one-month internship with the Howard County Probation Department.
As a psychology major and sociology minor, she had no plans to go into probation work. But she “really enjoyed” the internship. After she graduated in 1987 with a liberal arts degree, she was asked to fill in for six weeks for a secretary on maternity leave.
Rice said she thinks she has always wanted to do something involved with helping people. So instead of following through on her original plan to go to medical school, she decided to make probation work her career.
Almost 27 years later, she’s chief probation officer for Miami County, having joined the department shortly after her temporary experience in Howard County.
Since 1991, Rice has headed a 10-person department, including herself, that supervises about 900 offenders. She oversees a budget of almost $500,000 that’s funded almost equally by tax dollars and fees clients pay when placed on probation.
Among her responsibilities are developing and implementing new programs, collecting user fees, and record-keeping. She reports directly to the three Miami County judges.
In the past, she has also written grants, including the original Community Corrections grant for Miami County. The funds were used to start the community corrections program here.
She said she will soon start writing a grant seeking funds to establish new programs that deal with domestic violence offenders.
In supervising offenders, probation officers are sometimes referred to as the “eyes and ears of the judge,” Rice said. “We do this by meeting with clients on a regular basis, monitoring their activities and behavior.”
Each probation officer has a caseload of approximately 200 clients. The juvenile officer has between 40 and 50 clients.
Probation officers write reports for the court that cover an offender’s background and criminal history. The officers also assist offenders in obtaining services designed to help them change their behavior.
“Some officers work with specialized caseloads, such as sex offenders or mentally ill clients,” Rice noted.
One aspect of probation that has changed considerably the past several years is how officers work with clients, Rice said.
“In the past, probation was primarily just monitoring offender behavior and then reporting violations to the court,” she explained. “Offenders would check in for appointments, report any changes in address and/or employment, and be on their way.
“Now, however, there is an emphasis on officers working closely with offenders to change their unacceptable behavior. Probation officers are now spending a good deal of time trying to teach and model appropriate behavior.”
The department works with offenders to develop a case plan that has specific goals and objectives designed to address specific problem areas that might lead to future criminal activity.
“For instance,” Price elaborated, “we know that offenders who are unemployed are at greater risk of committing another crime. Part of a case plan might be to fill out 10 employment applications per week and return these to a probation officer.
“In the past, we would have simply told the offender they needed to find a job. We now try to develop specific goals which are measureable and achievable. It takes a lot more time than in the past, but the results are better.”
When a client is first placed on probation, Rice said, someone in the department performs a risk assessment that places the client into one of three categories: high risk, moderate risk, or low risk.
Categorizing everyone by their risk level is somewhat of an indicator as to how likely they are to re-offend,” Rice said. “Clients who are high risk are required to report to their officer more often than clients who are low risk.”
A client meets with a probation officer and a case plan is developed, including a schedule regarding how often the client will be required to report. Specific goals and objectives are developed with the offender.
“Offenders typically leave the office with some specific requirements they need to accomplish prior to their next appointment,” Rice said. “At that next appointment, they will discuss progress they have made, or sometimes lack thereof, and develop new goals.”
An offender must report to his or her probation officer at different intervals, based on the offender’s individual case.
High-risk offenders need more services and basically more intervention through the department, Rice said. A high-risk client might be required to report weekly, a low-risk client once every couple of months.
Most offenders report to the probation office.
“Typically, most probationers are good about reporting for appointments,” Rice said. “They realize that probation is an alternative to being incarcerated, and the majority of them are compliant with reporting instructions.”
When a probation officer visits an offender’s home or work place, it’s usually because the officer has a specific reason to believe that the offender is doing something that violates the terms of his or her probation.
“For instance, if we suspected a client was using or manufacturing drugs within the home, we could go and search their home,” Rice pointed out. “We always take law enforcement with us when entering a client’s home.”
Each probation officer is responsible for reporting offender non-compliance to the supervising judge, Rice said. If an offender commits a relatively minor violation, the officer might choose to deal with the issue directly without involving the court.
“We can do things like require the offender to seek additional counseling, etc., without going [before] the judge,” Rice noted.
“We also have an administrative procedure which allows officers to bring offenders in for a hearing with me. In these cases, we basically work out an agreement with the offender to either receive some consequences for the violation, i.e., community service work and/or seek additional services designed to modify behavior, i.e., substance abuse counseling.”
More serious violations require the offender to reappear before the judge. The officer makes a recommendation that probation either be revoked or continued with specific modifications. The prosecuting attorney and the offender’s attorney also have the option to make a recommendation. Ultimately, the presiding judge decides the offender’s fate.
Over the years, Rice has honed her skills by being involved in programs related to her work.
From January 1990 to April 1992, she was director of the Court Appointed Special Advocate Program (CASA). The program serves as an advocate for children involved with the welfare and probation departments.
From April 1999 to January 2002, she was the community corrections program director. She was responsible for creating a program that includes electronically monitored home detention and work release components.
In addition to holding those positions, Rice has been actively involved with the Probation Officer’s Professional Association of Indiana. She was the district representative from 1996 to 1999 and vice-president from 1999 to 2003. Since 2003 she has been the training and conference coordinator.
Rice has also served on the Probation Officers’ Advisory Board, Indiana Judicial Center, the American Probation and Parole Association, the Miami County Child Abuse Prevention Council, and the Miami County Community Corrections Board of Directors.
She is also a member of the Peru school board, and since 2011 has been a certified school safety specialist with the Indiana Department of Education.
Despite a job that can be demanding, Rice said she enjoys her work — which has a key similarity to her late father’s occupation: obtaining information and making judgments.
Her father was John R. "Jack" Barkley, who spent several years as editor of the Kokomo Tribune before starting his own printing business and later working for the United Way of Indiana.
Her mother was an English teacher before her family moved to Indiana from Savannah, Ga., where Rice was born. Her mother later worked for many years with the American Heart Association before retiring.
“They taught me to have confidence in myself and not be afraid to speak my mind,” Rice said. "They also taught me the value of hard work and to always make family a priority.”
Rice, who is divorced, has a stepdaughter, Amanda, 26, who works in the Miami County Clerk’s Office, and a son, Andrew, 16, a junior at Peru High School. She has a brother, Jack, 47, who lives in Indianapolis.
Outside the office, Rice attends the First Baptist Church in Peru and for leisure likes spending time in her kitchen.
“I love to cook and bake and started decorating cakes a few years ago,” she said.
Rice also loves to golf, “even though I’m terrible at it.”
But it’s being outdoors, which Rice enjoys, including spending a lot of time in the summer walking and running on the Nickel Plate Trail.
Ray Moscowitz of Bloomington is a retired newspaper executive and former publisher of the Peru Tribune. Contact him at email@example.com.