Press-Republican

March 17, 2013

Longtime Essex County probation chief to retire

BY LOHR McKINSTRY
Press-Republican

---- — ELIZABETHTOWN — Essex County Director of Probation Scott McDonald has given his last report to the county.

The Jay resident is retiring March 22 after 32 years of county service, 24 of those as chief probation officer.

The County Probation Department has changed a lot since he joined it in 1983, McDonald said.

“There were three probation officers; now there are nine. Our caseload tripled. It was 150 when I started; now it’s 450.”

The workload to manage each probationer has increased as well, McDonald said.

“We have duties we didn’t have 30 years ago. We take DNA samples now, fingerprinting, electronic monitoring.”

LIVE TRACKING

Many low-level, non-violent offenders are eligible for electronic home monitoring instead of incarceration, and the Probation Department is in charge of that, McDonald said.

He said that from Oct. 1, 2011, to Oct. 31, 2012, electronic monitoring saved the cost of 5,295 jail days for the county.

“Basic monitoring is for home confinement, then GPS for people who work. We can live track them anywhere they go, 24/7. 

“That works pretty well.”

The GPS bracelets report the person’s geographic location at all times using geo-positioning satellites.

For home monitoring, an ankle bracelet uses wireless technology to send an alarm if the person strays more than 100 feet from a base point.

McDonald said they have a combined total of 43 people on both types of monitoring at present.

And no one has fled the electronic monitoring, he said.

“We really haven’t (had any escapes). Amazingly not. They know they can go back to jail. They tend to do OK. They’re not altar boys.

“We did have one person who set a record for being on monitoring for 364 days,” he added.

‘PROFESSIONAL, THOROUGH’

Former Moriah Town Justice James Sherman said it has been a pleasure to work with McDonald. 

As a local justice, Sherman often placed defendants on probation, and he said McDonald did his job in a professional and thorough manner.

“Scott was someone you could rely on. If he told you something would be done, it was done. I’m sorry the county is losing him.”

Addiction to alcohol and drugs is the issue behind most of the crimes where people wind up on probation, McDonald said.

Probation officers used to ask people if they were using drugs or alcohol, but technology has given them a more certain way of finding out.

“Now we have on-site drug testing,” McDonald said. “It’s an observed test, and it only takes a minute. Some of them (probationers) tried to use their kids’ urine or someone else’s urine, so we had to change the way it’s done.”

IGNITION INTERLOCK

The county recently got access to Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor (SCRAM) bracelets, he said, that test perspiration for alcohol content and report via the telephone network. 

The defendant pays $7 a day for the use of the system.

“Within an hour or so, we can get a phone call saying, ‘Johnny has consumed alcohol.’ For somebody who can’t stop drinking, it’s great, because they really have to stop in order to stay out of jail.”

The other device in the department’s arsenal is the ignition interlock, which is placed on the car of someone on probation for drunken driving and requires a breath test every time they drive.

Last year, the state made use of the devices mandatory as a requirement for a conditional driver’s license, and offenders are charged $100 a month for their use.

HOME VISITS

One person from Ticonderoga has been on and off probation throughout McDonald’s career.

“He’s our longest client. No one else is close,” he said. “We had someone from Lake Placid in the same situation, but he must have reformed.”

The Ticonderoga man has been convicted only of misdemeanors, like harassment and disorderly conduct, so he may serve a short sentence in the Essex County Jail then go on a period of probation, repeating year after year.

“He is a unique case,” McDonald said.

His office keeps close tabs on anyone on probation for a sex crime, he said.

“To the best of my knowledge, we’ve never had a sex offender reoffend while on probation.”

He said they have a software program that runs from a thumb drive, and when connected to a computer, searches it for pornography.

“We do a home visit and check their computer. We had two cases where child pornography was found.”

SINGLE POINT OF CONTACT

Evidence of child pornography is turned over to federal authorities for prosecution, he said.

In one case, the county went to a motel in Keeseville where a convicted sex offender was staying and used the program to discover he had an extensive collection of child porn on his laptop.

The man’s probation was ended, he went back to jail, and he was convicted and sentenced in federal court for possessing child pornography.

“It makes the community safer,” McDonald said. “We live here because we want to live in a safe area.”

McDonald said the multi-agency child-protection system they’ve set up is one his best achievements.

“We tried to make a system with a single point of contact. It’s helped with communications and coordination between agencies. We meet every month to talk about how it’s working and what we can do to improve it.”

LESS REIMBURSEMENT

Under the protection system, agencies coordinate services for children who are deemed at risk by the courts or an agency involved with the case.

In 1989, McDonald said, the state reimbursement rate for the County Probation Department was 46.5 percent; now it’s only 12 percent.

“The county has never cut back. When the state drops reimbursement, the county has to pick up.”

The office uses fees, grants and STOP-DWI funding to try to supplement its budget, McDonald said.

“We try to be as self-supporting as we can. The cost keeps going up. I think it’s a fairly worthy investment.”

CLIMBED THE LADDER

He said he’s going to miss coming to work at the Probation Department every day.

“It’s been an excellent staff over the years. I’ll miss the people, the staff here and in the DA’s Office, Public Defender, Social Services (offices).” 

Once retired, he said, “for awhile, I’ll do my project list around the house. I’m staying on some boards of directors that I’m on now. I want to keep my mind working.”

McDonald started work for Essex County in September 1981 as a social-services caseworker, became a probation officer trainee in 1983, a full probation officer in 1984 and a senior probation officer in 1988. He was promoted to director of probation in 1989.

County Board of Supervisors Chairman Randy Douglas (D-Jay) recently went to a state criminal justice conference in Lake Placid with McDonald.

“I witnessed first-hand the respect they (other law-enforcement professionals) have for Scott,” Douglas said. “It’s Essex County’s loss. We will sorely miss him.”

The County Board of Supervisors unanimously awarded McDonald a certificate of appreciation on his retirement.

Email Lohr McKinstry:lmckinstry@pressrepublican.com