How safety could be in jeopardy with Seattle’s plan to defund probation counselors

SEATTLE — Seattle City Councilmembers are in budget discussions this week and plan to make a 25% cut to Probation Services. Some probation counselors will be among those fired. “This will be a decrease of public safety in the city of Seattle,” said retired Seattle Municipal Court Presiding Judge Ed McKenna.

Among the thousands of people on probation in Seattle is Willow Sly. She has battled domestic violence, mental illness and an addiction to Oxycodone and Xanax. “My parents are addicts,” said Sly. In 2016, she had four DUI arrests over a few months. Sly was put on probation with counselors helping her navigate the legal system and the services she needed. She believes probation saved her life. “I would be dead. I would definitely be dead,” said Sly.

Caseloads are already overwhelming for Seattle Municipal Court probation counselors. “I have 400 people,” said probation counselor Levi Gonzalez, who is assigned to clients convicted of DUI. Gonzalez is among the probation officers being fired. His caseload will have to be absorbed by other probation counselors. “The caseload is already huge,” said Gonzalez.

The counselors find themselves in the crosshairs of calls to defund the criminal justice system. “We recognize that the criminal justice system needs changes, and we’re all on board with those. None of us are working there because we’re wanting to throw people in jail. I’ve never recommended jail as an option,” said Gonzalez.

Seattle probation officers maintain they are part of the solution, not the problem. “I think there’s a misconception out there about what we do in our office is punitive, and I think we try very hard to stay away from that,” said probation counselor Pam Teglovic.

Teglovic has a caseload of about 80 women that is likely to grow with fewer probation counselors. At one point, she was the probation counselor for Willow Sly. “She has just been amazing to watch. We refer them to chemical dependency programs, to mental health services to parenting programs to domestic violence programs. Many are in need of housing services, employment,” said Teglovic.

Torance Green is a Seattle probation counselor in the mental health unit. “I think I have about 50 active cases, and then I have 129 total. I fear if we’re reduced in the number of probation counselors, that there won’t be the time to give them the quality of service that they need to help them remain out of the justice system,” said Green.

Green is African American and the only person of color in his unit. He believes his race helps him connect with clients. “They see a familiar face. They see someone of color, and I’m afraid that in reducing the staff, that I personally will be moved to a different unit, and they won’t have that connection,” said Green.

McKenna believes the cuts to probation services will make Seattle less safe. “Those persons who we see typically on probation, persons committing crimes of assault, harassment, assault with sexual motivation, property crimes or other crimes against persons are not going to be referred to probation,” said McKenna.

Sly is still on probation but is now the mother of a two-year-old boy named King. Her probation officer helped her find treatment and housing. “Dealing with probation for me has just been super liberating. It changed my whole life. Structure is vital to, like, my existence,” said Sly.

With cuts and rising caseloads, probation counselors fear people like Sly won’t get the help they need. “I think they’ll just get lost in the shuffle. That’s what I worry about. They need our time. They need our full attention,” said Teglovic.