Community corrections daunted by numbers

Sex offenders bring department into spotlight

POLK COUNTY -- Ask 10 people what community supervision means, Mary Silbernagel said, and you'll get 10 different answers.

As the director of Polk County Community Corrections, Silbernagel spends a lot of time explaining. That's especially true for sex offenders.

The February release of sex offender Larry Lee Edwards into Polk County cast Community Corrections into the spotlight. Edwards returned to Polk County streets April 1 after serving 30 days in jail for parole violations.

All the attention prompted Silbernagel to hold an open house March 25 to answer residents' questions about the department. Community Corrections supervises sex offenders, he said, but they are a small percentage of offenders under supervision.

Corrections supervises 548 adult offenders. Of those, 71 -- 13 percent -- have committed sex offenses.

Among the sex offenders, 23 have committed crimes such as rape, sodomy and sexual abuse. This group is considered "predatory." Polk County Corrections officials notify neighbors in person when a predatory offender moves into the neighborhood.

Their photographs also appear on the Corrections Web site,

Even if residents can identify all 23 predatory sex offenders, they may be getting a false sense of security, Silbernagel said. "I get tired of talking about them. They're so microscopic in terms of the big picture."

Other offenders may be just as dangerous. But state laws forbid disclosing much information on them.

At least five offenders under supervision in Polk County have served sentences for murder or manslaughter. But parole and probation officers can't reveal who or where these people live.

Neighbors wondering about a specific person can ask whether Community Corrections supervises that person. Corrections officials can answer yes or no and tell how long the supervision period will last but not much more.

Revealing this serves not to scare the public, Silbernagel said, but to inform it. "I'm not trying to raise the fear level; I'm trying to raise the awareness level.

"When you think who pumps your gas, who bags your groceries -- offenders are everywhere."

With only 13 employees, Community Corrections can't watch every offender all the time. But an informed public can help the department.

Dallas parent Heather Dankenbring came to Silbernagel worried about Edwards. After the open house, she pledged her own support. "I admire the lengths [Silbernagel] went through to do this.

"I hope the community will be the eyes and ears for police and help protect our children, because they are so precious."

Most people don't understand what Corrections does, Silbernagel said. Offenders on probation might think corrections officials aim to lock them up. Others might never think about the department until receiving notice that a sex offender has moved nearby.

Neither presents a complete picture. First, Corrections oversees not just probation sentences, but also those for parole and those who have broken parole.

Second, the goal is holding offenders to the terms a judge, parole board or commissioners have imposed on them. And that's where more eyes can help.

"I think the community can be pretty helpful working with officers to change their neighbors' negative thinking patterns," Silbernagel said.

"We want them to be successful, contributing members of our county, not just to lock them up and throw away the key."

Corrections officials hope to give offenders a boost into the straight life. They host programs like the cognitive skills class, designed to change criminal thinking patterns, and the restitution tracking program, which aims to make sure offenders pay money they owe their victims.

Through Community Corrections, offenders help the county in a number of ways. Serving community service requirements, offenders work in parks, picking up litter, on public works projects and in city shops.

They put in 2,800 hours, Silbernagel said -- each month.

Ask Silbernagel what community supervision means and you'll get several answers. Accountability. Responsibility. And a chance to become an asset to society rather than a drain.

"Simply considering that today 120 people are in jail, how many kids is that affecting? At least 120 kids in the community have their mom or dad in Polk County jail."

If Corrections employees turn around a life of crime, they change more than one life. "What we do at this office doesn't just affect the individual offender," Silbernagel said.

"It affects tons of people."


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