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Local corrections agent wins state award for work

Joe Peterson

Joe Peterson's work life is spent with the most serious criminals Hubbard County produces, yet he still wakes up every day looking for the good in people.

"It's challenging," said the state corrections agent who is stationed in Park Rapids. "You don't get to see the day-to-day. Like somebody building a house. You can see the progress. Here you don't get to see that on a day-to-day basis so it's rewarding when you get to see a person that actually takes advantage of the opportunities the court gives them, that a treatment program gives them when they take advantage of those tools they're given and actually apply them and use that internal motivation. It's very rewarding to see that."

The low-key Peterson got valuable advice 17 years ago when beginning his career as a probation officer. A fellow field agent suggested he learn to "flip the switch" between the defendants he saw daily and his own life to avoid becoming cynical.

"It does wear on you after awhile, but then again you have to separate yourself from it and say, 'As long as I know I'm holding people accountable for it, I'm trying to give them every opportunity they can have in the community to take advantage of treatment, counseling, therapy or medication management, whatever the case may be," he said.

"I guess as long as I feel I've taken steps to get them the assistance they need there's not a lot more you can do."

For his efforts Peterson was recently recognized by the Minnesota Corrections Association as the 2010 field agent of the year.

The longer moniker is Professional Achievement-Field Services Award for establishing rapport with offenders, families and coworkers.

Peterson's case files include the most serious, high-risk defendants in the county, including sex offenders. Nearly 80 percent of them have chemical dependency issues, many have dysfunctional families, some are unemployed, undereducated and sometimes unemployable.

So working with a defendant on probation can entail family counseling, job counseling, and treatment options.

But the most serious responsibility resting on Peterson's shoulders and that of his fellow corrections agents, is that of sentencing.

For most serious cases, probation officers write a detailed pre-sentence investigation report that outlines a specific defendant's life history, the likelihood that he can or will be rehabilitated and one that recommends punishment.

Judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys place significant weight on Peterson's recommendations.

We "get intimately involved in their lives from initial interview," Peterson said of his clients. "We get to know a fair amount about their background and provide that information to the court so a judge has a little better idea of what's going on in their life and what they've been through in imposing the sentence."

Doing a pre-sentence investigation carries enormous responsibility, Peterson admitted.

"It's something we obviously take very seriously because we're dealing with people's livelihood, their freedom and we do take that very seriously when we sit down to formulate what we feel is an appropriate sentence, jail, treatment, no contact restrictions," he said.

One of the most difficult tasks is to predict future dangerousness, to recommend a penalty that safeguards the public while allowing the offender all the available opportunities for rehabilitation.

Peterson and fellow agents use a risk assessment tool that scores a defendant's answers. Higher scores are riskier cases, which then go to Peterson.

He admits at times it keeps him up at night.

"There can be certain cases that you think about," he said, cases that "aren't so easily let go."

He works to instill internal motivation into a defendant so that person wants to overcome the obstacles that landed him or her in jail.

Family support is crucial to rehabilitating a lawbreaker and sometimes that just isn't there, Peterson said. He has little jurisdiction or leverage over the family dynamics because the family isn't on probation, didn't break the law. There's only so much he can ask of the family.

A job can make all the difference.

"For the most part I've never experienced any negative relationships with employers," he said. "I think employers want to know or be kept in the loop as to what's going on as much as we can share with them. A lot of the people who have kept employment, they value that and I think it's another factor if they're going to be successful or not."

Finding jobs for someone with a felony conviction can be difficult especially in a tough economy, Peterson said.

But it is the bedeviling chemical dependency issues that often hinder progress and trigger probation violations.

"It's frustrating to a degree," he said. "Some of it's expected, not that we overlook it. It's still brought forward to court."

The meth cases from three to five years ago were especially tough, he said. Family members were asked "how often do you want your heart broken?"

Accountability, compassion and a mandate to follow court orders are what guide Peterson.

"I tell a lot of people on probation up front I can work with you, with honesty," he said. "But when it's the game playing and manipulating, finding out about violations from people in the community, family or law enforcement, then it's going to be more consequences."

Peterson believes he can change human behavior for the better.

"Is it easy or quick?" he asked. "No. I think if you have somebody through working with them, getting them invested in themselves, getting them motivated, as long as they have that family support I think they can change."

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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