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Former Parole Officer Reflects On His Time Supervising 'The Second Chance Club'

Four and a half million Americans are on probation or parole — more than twice the nation's jail population. Parolees and probationers are required to check in regularly with officials, who are charged with helping them rebuild their lives.


Other segments from the episode on March 2, 2020

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Today, 4 1/2 million Americans are on probation or parole, more than twice the nation's jail population. Our guest today, Jason Hardy, spent four years as a parole officer in New Orleans in part because he believed in criminal justice reform and wanted to make a difference. He found himself working long hours for low pay, managing an impossibly high caseload of people struggling to rebuild their lives. Nearly all had needs he couldn't meet - food, housing, employment, medical care, mental health counseling and drug treatment.

Some addicts were so desperate for treatment, they would show up at the parole office knowing they'd failed a drug test and be sent back to jail because it was the only free detox center available to them. Hardy came to believe that the nation's failure to provide adequate probation and parole services represents the single greatest missed opportunity in the entire criminal justice system. Jason Hardy is now a special agent for the FBI. His book about his time as a parole officer is "The Second Chance Club: Hardship And Hope After Prison."

Well, Jason Hardy, welcome to FRESH AIR. You took this job - I think you were working at the watch counter at J.C. Penney's (ph) at the time - 29 years old there, right?

JASON HARDY: That's right.

DAVIES: What motivated you to do this?

HARDY: Well, a lot of different things - the first was probably inertia. Working at the watch counter in J.C. Penney was not very rewarding. I'd spent my 20s really bouncing around from one job to another. I taught high school for a few years. I went to graduate school for a few years. And then I bartended, waited tables and kind of ended up in retail.

And maybe partly because my 30th birthday was coming, I just really kind of wanted to try to find something more meaningful. And I had been doing some reading on the criminal justice system. And this was 2012, so this was kind of when it was becoming a hotter topic, and books like "The New Jim Crow" were out there sort of talking about problems with the justice system. And it just seemed to be something that you could get involved with and, you know, really make a big difference in a short period of time.

So that was kind of the idea. And frankly, you know, I looked at the city Police Department, and I looked at federal jobs. And state probation and parole was kind of the only thing that was hiring at the time, so I did a little reading on it and kind of just threw my name in the hat.

DAVIES: Was it hard to get the job?

HARDY: (Laughter) It was not hard to get the job, which should've been, I guess, a warning sign of some sort. The job was - I think maybe only five or six people applied for it. And I went in and interviewed, and it was a very kind of government job interview, where they read the questions off, like, a laminated legal sheet and didn't give you much feedback. And when I got the call that I was going to get the job, the guy who hired me, who actually ended up being a great boss - but he said, you know, we had a couple of people that we liked, but you seem like you had the easiest job to get out of, so...

DAVIES: (Laughter).

HARDY: So we decided to go with you. And he was right. J.C. Penney was not sorry to see me go.

DAVIES: All right.

HARDY: So I told them I would be heading out, and I went off to probation and parole.

DAVIES: A when-can-you-start kind of deal, huh? (Laughter).

HARDY: Absolutely, yes.

DAVIES: Right. So you get trained in some basics, and then on the job, you wear a polo shirt; you have handcuffs and a service weapon, a pistol, right?

HARDY: That's right.

DAVIES: Right. Did you ever pull your weapon or be in a position where you considered it?

HARDY: Yes. When we worked warrants, we would usually have our weapons out. That was really the only time. And it was kind of - that's just kind of, like, a general safety thing; if you're working what's considered a high-risk warrant, you'll have your gun out of your holster. But day to day, you know, it stayed in the holster. And this is really, for the most part, a job where you're walking around, having conversations with people.

DAVIES: Right. Handcuffs do get used, and...

HARDY: Yes, (unintelligible).

DAVIES: You tell an interesting story when you're - you kind of learn by watching more experienced probation and parole officers. And you describe a situation where you're with Charles, who's the guy you're office mate with, and a woman comes in wearing blue pajamas and eyeglasses held together by masking tape. Tell us about this encounter.

HARDY: Sure. Well, this was the first handcuffing that I would witness. And it was - ended up being a microcosm of what the job was like. She'd been on probation and parole for probably half her life. She'd suffered with drug abuse, drug addiction. I think she had a couple of burglary charges as well. And so she really knew how things worked, and she knew when she needed to report, kind of what she could get away with. And what I found out was, her coming in that day was essentially her way of telling us that she needed help.

She came in and more or less volunteered for a drug test, and she knew that when she tested positive, she was going to have to go to jail, which, on the surface, doesn't really make any sense. But what she understood was that if she wanted to get some kind of medical detox, the only way that the probation and parole department could provide it was to take her into custody. And so this was sort of a lesson that would carry on throughout the job. People would come to us for help, and in many cases, the only thing we could do would be to put them behind bars and hope that they could get the help there.

DAVIES: Yeah. This was pretty striking. There - I guess there was one free detox place, but they were not likely to have a bed right away. So the cuffs get snapped on. And this is a common thing. You are - as you moved through the job over the next four years, you had situations where you had to decide, do I want to put this person in jail even if, you know, it wasn't necessarily going to be good for their life, but it might save them from an overdose?

HARDY: Right. That was one of the things that came back over and over again, was - many times, the jail did not seem like the best answer or even a decent answer, but it was the only one that we had. And with regard to addiction, we would find that people who were addicted would come to us and almost make the decision for us. In the case of the woman we just spoke about, she said, look; I know I've got to get clean; I know I can't do it on my own; it'd be great if you could put me in rehab, but I know you can't, so if the jail is the only place I can get it, let's go.

DAVIES: Right. So you describe, you know, getting in the Crown Victoria that you and your partner Charles have and driving her over to the New Orleans County Jail. And, you know, it's a pretty smelly, dehumanizing place. It's, you know, kind of a shock to, I guess, your senses, being new to it. And as you leave her and you're driving away, you know, you kind of say to your partner, God, I was kind of hoping there might be something in between. He said - I think he said, what you're feeling now is exactly what you're supposed to feel. What did he mean?

HARDY: What he meant was that if you came in and you thought that jail was the answer to addiction, then you were not going to be suitable to the job. At the same time, if you couldn't deal with imperfect solutions, you also weren't going to be suitable to the job. And one of the things that I credit Charles with, who is a great friend, a great mentor and a great guy, was teaching me the job as - whether he - some people called it harm reduction; some people called it disaster reduction.

But basically, the idea was that you have a crude set of tools, and you're going to try to do the best you can with them. And very often, what that meant was using the jail to solve social problems, which most people understand - you know, jails are the most expensive solution to these problems. And there are better solutions out there, and it's just a matter of getting access to them.

DAVIES: Right. So it should feel crappy sometimes.

HARDY: Yes. Absolutely. And it did from day one.

DAVIES: You know, you came in hoping to make a difference. And you know, I think a lot of us might imagine that people in these jobs would - and this doesn't pay very well - right? - about 30,000 a year, something like that.

HARDY: Yes. The pay is poor. The benefits are expensive. The hours are long. You're required to - well, I shouldn't say required. You're strongly encouraged to work overtime that is also unpaid.

DAVIES: Yeah. So I would imagine that some people might think that you'd - that people that you would find in these roles are, you know, burned out, kind of cynical, maybe just going through the motions or, even worse, you know, kind of holding prejudiced opinions and imposing judgments on people who are poor or who have, you know, committed offenses. That's not what you found, right?

HARDY: No, not at all. If anything, I found that the difficulties of the job seemed to motivate a lot of people to stay in it. And certainly, the turnover rate was high. A lot of people burned out, and in the end, I was one of them. But the people who stuck with it prided themselves on doing more with less. And almost all of them would tell you that they don't think that the system that's in place right now is the right one, but they believe that it's a noble profession to try to get in there and try to make the best you can of an imperfect situation. And my office mate Charles is the best case of that I ran across, someone who was always clamoring for better but was trying to find good answers for people with very limited tools.

DAVIES: You were a white guy, and most of the probationers and parolees that you were monitoring were African American. Did your background feel like a handicap in any way? Did it matter?

HARDY: I think it did matter in that, frankly, you know, an African American probation and parole officer could just seem more relatable on the surface, you know. There are shared experiences there that I didn't experience. But I was surprised how many probationers and parolees were willing to give me a shot, you know. And if you showed up and you said, listen - I'm going to do the best I can. You know, we both know how this system works. We both know that it's not set up for either one of us to succeed. But I'll try to be fair. I'll try to come up with creative solutions. And hopefully, if we work together, we can see you succeed. And I can count on one hand the number of people who weren't willing to take that deal. People were very willing to work with me.

DAVIES: Let's cover a few basics. What's the difference between probation and parole?

HARDY: Well, it's a little bit convoluted. In the general sense, probation is an alternative to a prison sentence, and parole is basically the same form of supervision but it's after you've done a little bit of time. So in Louisiana, for example, they're functionally identical, but it's just that in one of them, you've been to prison, and in one of them, you haven't. It depends on what state you're in. It depends on what system you're in. For example, in the federal system, they don't really have parole anymore; they have this thing called supervised release. So the - you know, the language of it is a little bit complicated. But in general, a parolee is someone who's been in prison, and a probationer is someone who is doing time on the outside to avoid going to prison.

DAVIES: Right. So either a judge or a parole board has mandated that you be regularly supervised, and that was your job.

HARDY: Exactly.

DAVIES: This is fascinating. The parolees and probationers were expected to pay fees to the department of $60 dollars in the case of a probationer, $63 for parolees. You said this was basically ignored?

HARDY: Yes. The fees were unenforceable. You couldn't lock people up for not paying them. And, you know, everybody knew that none of the folks we were dealing with had the money. So the fees were - I can't remember anybody ever paying them. So they were - I guess they were in there, you know, if by some chance you got someone who was - who had the funds to pay them and maybe just wanted to do everything to stay on the right side of the law, maybe you could get that person to pay them. But they were pretty much a nonissue.

DAVIES: Right. I mean, most of the people that you were dealing with had such needs (laughter) and so many things to contend with, there just wasn't any extra money for anything like that. But do you know if the fees would stay on their credit records?

HARDY: I don't believe so. I don't know of anyone ever being turned over to a collections agency. I think it was kind of just something that was put in place when the probation and parole system was kind of launched as a way that, you know, the state hoped could earn a little bit of extra money. But as far as I know, collections efforts didn't really ever pan out.

DAVIES: Now, you write that best practices in the profession held that the proper caseload for a probation officer is about 50 cases per person. How many were you assigned to supervise?

HARDY: Normally, I had about 220.



HARDY: So about four times what's recommended.

DAVIES: So how did you manage that?

HARDY: Well, you manage it by triaging. And some of that, you do kind of follow in your own instincts; some of it is done by risk assessments. So risk assessments are kind of a hot topic in criminal justice now. And essentially, the idea - and this is done with - you know, whether it's with bail or with probation or parole and even with prison. You look at an individual's record. You look at his socioeconomic status. You look at his educational attainment, his history of mental health issues. And you essentially try to assign some number that tells you how likely a person is to recidivate.

Obviously, this stuff can be problematic because these are algorithms. They're essentially making educated guesses. But ultimately, what you can do is you can look at 220 people and say, we think that these are the 45 to 50 who stand the best chance of harming themselves or someone else. And so those are the people you spend most of your time on.

So what you end up with in a caseload of 220 is about 50 who are getting something that looks like real supervision and, you know, 100-something who are getting nothing at all. And in that nothing-at-all category, there are probably 35 to 40 who are in warrant status, where they've just kind of disappeared, and we don't know where they are, and we're not really looking for them.

DAVIES: Right. And there are a lot of conditions attached to supervised release. It boils down to a few simple rules, right?

HARDY: Yes. And there, again, the officer has some discretion in what he wants to enforce. Essentially, you're telling folks that they need to avoid getting in trouble with another felony offense. They need to try to avoid using drugs, although not everyone is drug tested regularly. And then there are the kind of pie-in-the-sky ones that were really hard to get to in New Orleans, which is, like, you know, get a job that pays a living wage; get your own house. Those were things that we could tell people to do, but we didn't have the tools to actually help them do that.

DAVIES: But basically, don't use drugs, don't get arrested, and make sure you stay in touch, right?

HARDY: And keep showing up, yeah. Those are jokingly called kind of the big three. Yeah, keep showing up being the last one.

DAVIES: Jason Hardy's new book is "The Second Chance Club: Hardship And Hope After Prison." We'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And my guest is Jason Hardy. He's currently a special agent for the FBI, but he has a book about the four years he spent as a probation and parole officer for the city of New Orleans. It's called "The Second Chance Club: Hardship And Hope After Prison."

For the probationers and parolees who you really needed to stay in close touch with, there were home inspections. And this - you'd think this could be intrusive and lead to really contentious relationships. And you describe going into one of them, this - the whole of these two brothers, Javaron and Ronald. Describe a home visit there. You go in. What do you do? What are you looking for? How does it go?

HARDY: Well, it certainly can be intrusive. Like a lot of other things on the job, it sort of depends on how you carry yourself when you do it. This is another thing that I learned from my office mate Charles, is that, you know, if you show up, if you knock on the door politely, if you treat everybody with respect and if you say that you're more or less there to have a conversation and that, really, what you're trying to do is get to know this person better so that you can help him, then it generally goes pretty well.

Another factor that we didn't have any control over was that most of these neighborhoods that we were in were high-crime areas that were accustomed to police being around. And you wouldn't think that that would work in your favor, but to some extent, having law enforcement at the front door was old hat to a lot of folks we were dealing with. And so if we showed up and if we treated everybody with respect, we would more or less be welcomed in and free to kind of get to know the people who were on our caseload.

DAVIES: Right. Now, these two brothers, they live with their mom. They raise puppies. You don't go in, like, ripping draws out, right? I mean, what's the protocol? Is it like a search as in, like, if you had a search warrant? Or is it just a visit? Or is it something in between?

HARDY: Well, this, too, varies state by state. The rules are different. In Louisiana, it's what they call, like, a plain view inspection, which essentially means your first job is to go in there and get to know the person you're supervising. And if you think of it almost philosophically, the No. 1 goal is to keep this person from going back to jail. So that's what you're there to do, is to get to know the person better. And the idea is that the better you know him, the better that you can help him.

But you also have an obligation of public safety. So if, for example, you were to walk in and see a gun on the counter, you would be expected to kind of switch hats, and you kind of go into law enforcement mode. And at that point, you say, hey, you have a firearm. You're not allowed to have one. I have to confiscate it, and you're going to have to go see the judge. And so at that point, the handcuffs have to come off. So it can turn on a dime. But 99 out of 100 home visits are really just kind of getting-to-know-you sessions.

DAVIES: All right. So if you see a firearm or you see crack, then the handcuffs come out?

HARDY: Yes. There is a little more discretion with drugs. And this, too, it varies by jurisdiction. But increasingly, probation and parole officers are trying to kind of get out of the business of taking people to jail over, let's say, a misdemeanor drug violation. Sometimes there's a way around that. But with firearms, there's almost never a way around it. If you see a gun, somebody's going to go to jail.

DAVIES: Right. So people are drinking a beer, smoking some weed, that's not going to be a problem?

HARDY: Well, I wouldn't say it's not going to be a problem. But I would say, you know, if it's marijuana, it might be something that you could resolve with, say, you know, a conversation and something like community service; it's not necessarily going to be taking somebody to jail.

DAVIES: You know, you say that, in some senses, you and your fellow probation and parole officers were doing the best you could with limited resources trying to help people who had terrible needs and that there was sort of an understanding you were kind of in the disaster prevention business, trying to avoid the worst. And one of the kinds of disasters you hope to avoid was an overdose death. And that's one of the reasons that you would sometimes send people to jail because if there was no other detox available, at least they would be - their lives would be saved. And it was tough. I mean, it did happen sometimes. When somebody overdosed and you had to deal with their parents, what was that like?

HARDY: That was one of the hardest things to do on the job. We were - I don't think we were ever the ones who were initially giving the news, but we would always go over there after the fact and kind of have some kind of a debriefing, as much as that was possible. And most parents sort of knew the system. They knew that, again, we didn't have that many resources, that we were doing the best we could.

But some came right at us and said, hey, look - you - if nothing else, your job was to keep my son or daughter alive, and you failed to do that. And, you know, you can know logically that a lot of these problems predate you, that you - you know, you maybe weren't the cause of them. But a part of you can't help but agree, you know, that if nothing else, at the end of this supervision period, this person should still be walking and breathing. And, you know, to have to go and answer for that, it really takes its toll.

DAVIES: Jason Hardy is a special agent for the FBI. His book about spending four years as a parole officer in New Orleans is "The Second Chance Club: Hardship And Hope After Prison." After a break, he'll talk about some of his more memorable cases, including one involving a successful drug dealer who was addicted not to his product but his lifestyle. Also, Kevin Whitehead tells us about a new collection of ballads from jazz trumpeter Jeremy Pelt. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. My guest is Jason Hardy, an FBI agent whose new book is about the four years he spent as a probation and parole officer in New Orleans. It's called "The Second Chance Club: Hardship And Hope After Prison."

You concentrate on seven cases. I mean, you kind of follow them through the book a little bit. One of them is a guy named Kendrick. And it's fascinating. He lives in kind of a group house. The rules are written so that people on parole or probation are not allowed to get Section 8 subsidized housing vouchers, right? But...

HARDY: That's right, no public housing of any kind.

DAVIES: But there's a woman who gets a Section 8 house, and so she basically operates a little place where four or five guys sleep there. They share food stamps and that kind of thing. It's sort of an ad hoc arrangement. This is the kind of thing that happens because people have to get by. But Kendrick has a lot of issues, doesn't he? Tell us about this guy.

HARDY: Yes. Kendrick is someone who was exposed to violence from probably as far back as he could remember. His mother was addicted to crack and heroin, often at the same time. She was a victim of violence herself and also inflicted violence on Kendrick and a lot of other people. Kendrick's father was a drug dealer who was shot dead in front of him. So you're talking about someone who, from childhood, was just really up against it. And by the time he was on my caseload, I want to say he had maybe four felony convictions. He was actually on parole for a burglary.

But one of the things I found was that if you looked at just kind of the offense of the moment, it didn't really tell you the whole story. And, you know, like, a lot of property crime offenses are actually the result of substance abuse issues or mental health issues, and that was the case with Kendrick, where a lot of times he would commit a crime because he was having a mental health episode or because he was going through some kind of withdrawals.

DAVIES: And he, like a lot of the folks that you supervised, needed an income. And one possibility for him, given, you know, I think there were arguably some mental or neurological deficits, was Supplemental Security Income, what's called disability - right? - from the Social Security Administration.

HARDY: Right, SSI.

DAVIES: Right. And you called them to see what you could do. What happened?

HARDY: What happens normally when you call and try to get some kind of a public service for someone is that you're told that you have to bring a lot of paperwork to a government building. And what I found with SSI is that the hurdles to getting it are such that a person who - I should say, many people who are truly disabled just can't possibly get over them. And so with someone like Kendrick, he needed to have extensive medical documentation. He needed to be able to get to numerous appointments on time. He needed to be able to articulate his issues in front of a judge. And that just wasn't going to happen.

And as a probation and parole officer, you know, you might be able to make a couple of calls on his behalf. You might be able to give him a ride to his appointment. But what he really needed to get these benefits was a full-time social worker, and that wasn't something that we were able to do. But it was kind of a recurring theme where many of the social services that are set up to help people who are needy end up being out of their reach because there's so many hoops that you have to jump through in order to access them.

DAVIES: You eventually managed to help him in kind of a remarkable way. You managed to get him admitted to a state prison in Baton Rouge - right? - that actually had some serious mental health evaluation and treatment. But it really took a lot of effort, right?

HARDY: Yes. And it was kind of a "Through The Looking Glass" moment for me. I'd been there, I think, about a year. You know, and again, I'd come on kind of hoping to keep people out of jail to be sort of pulling against this tide of mass incarceration. And I have this moment where I end up really proud of myself for putting someone in jail because it seems to be the only way that I can get him his care. What ended up happening was we couldn't get him access to any treatments in the city. There was an agency called Metropolitan Mental Health that was supposed to be kind of the provider of last resort for indigent folks. And it was, but again, you had to have the right paperwork. You had to show up on time. You had to do a lot of things that Kendrick just wasn't able to do.

And my boss, to his credit, knew that this prison in Baton Rouge had this robust mental health service wing for whatever reason. And so he kind of was - just started badgering wardens and kind of people in the chain of command up there and saying, hey, we have this guy. I know this is a crazy situation. But, you know, he's living on the streets. He's really a danger to himself and to others. Is there any way we can just send him to you and you guys can sit down with him, you can give him the paperwork, and then we can get him this care locally? And so they ultimately did agree to do that.

And so, you know, we called Kendrick up and explained the situation to him, and he was good with it. He said, sure, if that's what I got to do, let's do it. And that, too, was just this jarring thing where you're telling somebody, hey, if I want to help you, I got to lock you up for 90 days. And he was so used to how the system worked, he said, yeah, let's do it. Let's - whatever it takes.

DAVIES: Wow. You describe going into courtrooms. And, you know, anybody who's been into criminal courts in a big city know that they are really busy places. I mean, there are a lot of cases usually listed at the same time. You got, you know, defendants and their relatives, prosecutors, cops, public defenders, court officers all milling around. And you say that when you or - you as a probation and parole officer came, a lot of the judges would immediately summon you up and have a conversation, right? What kind - what were those relationships like?

HARDY: The relationships with the judges, in my experience, were terrific. And I think in part it's because - especially in a place like New Orleans, where the criminal justice system is so overburdened - there's just a lot of camaraderie with people who work in it. And I think the judges understood that we had a tough job; we understood that they had a tough job. And one of the only ways they could help us was to kind of get us out of the building quicker so we could go back and intend to other people. So normally, when we came in, they would more or less blow the whistle, let us come up, see what we needed, and if they could help us, they would triage it for us.

DAVIES: But you also brought something to them, which was real granular information about these defendants. I mean, there's the one case of these two brothers who live together. They're with their dogs and their mom - Ronald and Javaron, right?

HARDY: Right.

DAVIES: And you describe a case where there was a question whether Ronald was going to be sent to jail because I think he'd been stopped and there was a gun in the car. It probably wasn't his, but there was some discretion. And the judge - and you explained, look - this guy has seizures, you know, several times a day. He - don't expect him to get a real job. Tell us about that interaction a little.

HARDY: Well, this is where probation and parole, I think, can really shine as alternatives to incarceration because if you have the time to get to know the people on your caseload, what you can do is you can bring a decision-maker, be it a judge or a parole board, a really holistic view of what this person is dealing with. So nine times out of 10, when a judge is making a decision about bond or, frankly, about whether to put somebody back in jail, more or less what they have is a police report, and then they have the word of a defense attorney and an ADA, both of whom are also overworked and probably don't know a whole lot more than what's written in the police report.

But the probation and parole officer, again, if he's had the time to get to know the person, has been to the house, he knows the family. He knows the dynamic in there, and he may be able to give the judge or the parole board information that can lead to a a more informed decision. So for example, in the case that you just brought up, the judge was not aware that the individual in question was having these seizures and that his health was so bad. And so that ended up weighing into his decision about what exactly he was up to in this car with this gun.

DAVIES: Right. And so he - a more compassionate course was struck. And it was interesting. You said, the district attorney said, God, I didn't know that; defense attorney said, I didn't know that. It was this guy in the polo shirt - you - who really had this critical information.

HARDY: That's it. And I found over and over again that, you know, it's an adversarial system, and prosecutors and defense attorneys are at each other's throats all day. But you do see these moments where everybody can kind of put their head together and say, OK, we have a limited number of resources; if this is someone that we don't have to put in jail, there's some other way that we can we can work this out, let's do that. And I found that I saw more and more of that as time went on.

DAVIES: Jason Hardy's new book is "The Second Chance Club: Hardship And Hope After Prison." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Jason Hardy. He's currently a special agent for the FBI, but he has a book about the four years he spent as a probation and parole officer for the city of New Orleans. It's called "The Second Chance Club: Hardship And Hope After Prison."

So many of the probationers and parolees that you supervised had drug issues and addiction issues, which can be so difficult to get under control, particularly if, you know, you don't have a lot of resources in your life. One person who was different was a guy named Damien, who was 26 years old. And he was a successful drug dealer. You want to just describe his circumstance and, you know, what it was like to visit him and have some of these conversations?

HARDY: Sure. Damien was someone who, inside of 30 seconds of meeting him, you just felt this kind of charisma. He was just the guy who - one of the themes that you return to again and again in this kind of work is if this person had been born in slightly different circumstances, he might have come out differently. He grew up in a rough neighborhood in New Orleans, went to a failing school, dropped out early, became a drug dealer as a teenager. And so by his late 20s, that was what he knew. But if you sat across the desk from him, you could just see that there was this great intelligence, this great energy, and that there had to be something else out there for him.

And when he first got out of prison and came on parole, there was this moment where we were kind of talking about his past and about his future, when he said to me, you know what? I think I am ready, maybe, to try something else. But at that time, we had no job referrals, really, at all. Essentially, we told people, hey, you can go to the temp agency, or you can go to this outfit called JOB1, which is, like, kind of the city's official workplace referral service. But generally, for people with records, there wasn't going to be a whole lot of help there. So there was a moment when he seemed amenable to trying something different.

But several weeks later, when we actually did have a job referral that I could present to him, he'd kind of already gone back to what he knew. And it was too late. He was like, no, man, I'm doing fine. I'm making money. You know, give that to somebody else. And there was - just had to move on from that.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, you describe visiting him with Charles, and it wasn't like he said, I'm dealing drugs.


DAVIES: But when you looked at his apartment and looked at the car he was driving and kind of the circumstances he was living in, it was pretty clear what was going on. And a kind of a frank discussion ensued there. You know, Charles, who's an African American guy who grew up in New Orleans, said, what neighborhood are you working in? How'd that conversation go?

HARDY: Well - and I should say, just kind of - this is something that I didn't know before the job, but most drug dealers do not make very much money and, you know, the ones that do are few and far between. But he was definitely one of them. And Charles was just a little more confrontational with him than I would have been. And it ended up - kind of in coded language, but sort of a discussion about race and economics and opportunity.

And essentially, what we were told was that the drug-dealing thing might have been dangerous and it might have led to prison sentences, but he viewed it as a meritocracy. And the way he looked at it - you know, there is no discrimination here. Nobody cares what my record is. It's simply a matter of how much weight can I move? And you can kind of understand the appeal of that, you know, this idea that it doesn't matter where you came from; it doesn't matter what you look like. If you can do the work, you can get paid. And ultimately, that was not a logic that I could really refute in any meaningful way.

DAVIES: Yeah. And it was fascinating that he was really good at getting on medical assistance if he needed it or disability income. You know, a lot of people would have trouble dealing with the forms and making appointments. He was on top of it.

HARDY: Yeah. And that was kind of a thing we just had to learn to laugh at, that, generally, the savviest people that we dealt with, who also, in large part, were the most successful at kind of living lives of crime and profiting from it, were also the people who got all the benefits. And, you know, they were sharp. They knew how to work the system. And the people who had the greatest need and were the most disabled, it was absolutely impossible for them to deal with all the bureaucracy. And so they ended up getting no benefits at all.

DAVIES: Now, during the four years you had this job in New Orleans, you know, the winds of criminal justice reform blew through. And...


DAVIES: ...Some more resources were applied - and just different techniques. There was a drug court, and there was, you know, a kind of a focused deterrence program and some additional mental health resources. How much of a difference did it make?

HARDY: I think it made a huge difference. The mental health court that I just mentioned - essentially, you know, there was just this vacuum of people who were on probation and just had no way to get mental health care. And, you know, the outcomes of that are obvious. If you have mental health needs, you're living on the street, ultimately more crimes are going to be the result. And whether you're hurting yourself or someone else, the cycle is just going to continue. So mental health court was this way that, you know, they could pull somewhere between 50 and a hundred people, get them resources, get a lot of them housing. And the recidivism rates in programs just absolutely plummet. I know drug court alone - the last big study I read - it saves something like $6,000 in taxpayer costs.

DAVIES: Per person, right?

HARDY: Absolutely - $6,000 per person. And recidivism rates dropped from, like, 40% to 12 or something. So these programs really, really work. And it seems like they're adding more of them every day. So that's something that I'm really excited about. And I really think it's kind of the future of community supervision is - you know, having a PO is great - having somebody who can get to know you and report to the judge. But the real difference-maker is resources. If - you know, it's great to identify a need, but if you can't help the person fix the need, what have you really done? And these kind of programs really have gone a long way toward that.

DAVIES: Yeah. It's interesting - as you describe the job, you must often stop and do the math. Well, I'm going to put - if we put this back in prison for three years, it's going to cost this. If we had, you know, some housing, some counseling, some drug rehab services, it would be so much cheaper and so much more effective. And you note that in the federal system, they do actually put more resources in.

HARDY: They do. The federal system is pretty small. There's something like 4 1/2 million people on probation and parole in the country. And I think maybe 2% of them are in the federal system. But the federal system pays - spends something like four times what we spend in Louisiana on probationers and parolees, like, per person. And what they get for it is, essentially, a full slate of things that you can try, you know? And it doesn't mean that it's going to work on everybody. Some people aren't ready to change. Some people - jail is going to be the only thing that's going to modify their behavior. But for the overwhelming majority, if you can put them in front of a program that can help them address their needs, you're going to have less crime, and you're going to spend less money.

And one of the things that I think is really interesting about this system is that you can come at it from kind of a social justice warrior point of view of, you know, reducing incarceration, having a more compassionate justice system. But it can also just be straight economics where you say, prison is the most expensive way to deal with these problems. And if we can do something that costs half as much and gets a better result, why not do it?

DAVIES: In the end, you left. Why did you decide to seek a more conventional law enforcement career?

HARDY: Selfish reasons, really. I just felt burned out. I found in that last year that I was struggling to kind of maintain the right perspective. It was harder for me to be patient with people. It was harder for me not to, frankly, blame people for mistakes that weren't of their making. And the people who really are pros at this, like my office mate, are people who just have these never-ending reserves of - I don't know what the word for it is. We joke that it was just grace, you know, this ability to always be there for people and to always be patient. And it's truly a gift. And I just felt that, toward the end, I just wasn't able to provide the level of care that I wanted to. And - but I wanted to stay in the justice system because I really believe that I think things are getting so better. I think there's a lot to look forward to. I think it's getting a lot more dynamic. And I just felt that I wanted to find another role.

DAVIES: So you're investigating white-collar crimes now. Happy with it?

HARDY: A little bit of everything, yes. Well, you know, white-collar crime, like a lot of different crimes, is being looked at through a new lens. And I think that one of the exciting things about working criminal justice now is that pretty much everything is up for debate. And, you know, these old kind of binaries about, like, violent crime, nonviolent crime, street crime versus, you know, suburban crime - everything's kind of being reassessed. And I find it's just a great time to be doing this work because people are coming up with new solutions every day. And with regard to how folks are dealt with once they're convicted, I really think this community supervision model, while it's not suitable for everybody - if it's really about rehabilitation and if probation and parole officers really have the resources to try to get people jobs, to try to get people treatment, I just think we're going to end up with a better system.

DAVIES: Jason Hardy, thanks so much for speaking with us.

HARDY: Thanks so much for having me.

DAVIES: Jason Hardy is a special agent for the FBI. His book about his four years as a probation and parole officer in New Orleans is "The Second Chance Club: Hardship And Hope After Prison." Coming up, Kevin Whitehead tells us about a new collection of ballads from jazz trumpeter Jeremy Pelt. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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