BANGOR, Maine — In his nearly 39 years as a probation officer, Ron Sagner never carried a gun.
“It wasn’t required when I started in 1975,” Sagner, 66, of Old Town said shortly before he retired in mid-August. “The attitude then was, if you need to carry one, you weren’t the right person for the job.”
That changed in 1996 when probation officers hired after that date were required to carry weapons. Sagner said he was “grandfathered” under the Department of Corrections’ rule, but the Auburn native never felt he needed a gun to do the job.
When he retired, Sagner was one of only two probation officers who did not carry a gun.
Carrying a sidearm was just one of the many changes Sagner, a soft-spoken father of five grown children, witnessed in his nearly four decades on the job working out of the Bangor office.
Probation is a court-ordered term of community supervision with specified conditions for a period of time that cannot exceed the maximum sentence for the offense, according to information posted on the Department of Corrections’ website.
The probation officer’s job to is see the probationer abides by those conditions, which can include working for pay or performing community service, getting mental health and/or substance abuse treatment, pursuing an education and paying court fines and restitution.
“I think we have a lot of [probationers] that we help get into school, into counseling,” he said. “We refer them to agencies who can help them get on their feet. We can help a person if he’s willing to be helped. These days, we have a closer relationship with them [and] get more involved in their lives than we did when I first started.”
A major change Sagner’s seen over the years is the types of substances offenders abuse that contribute to their criminal activity.
“For half of my career, the big thing was alcohol,” he said. “That evolved into marijuana, then, hard drugs and opiates. Now, it’s bath salts and designer drugs.”
Drug arrests in Maine increased from 1,747 in 1986, to 5,912 in 2010, according to a January 2013 report by the University of Maine Muskie School of Public Policy. Between 2001 and 2010, drug arrests increased by 18 percent while arrests for all non-drug offenses decreased by 7 percent, the report said.
When Sagner was hired in January 1975, the probation division was part of the Department of Mental Health and Corrections. About 1980, the Department of Corrections, which included probation, was split off and mental health services joined what became the Department of Health and Human Services.
Sagner said that his caseload changed dramatically during his time on the job. He supervised 120 adult and juvenile probationers and 40 parolees convicted of felonies and misdemeanors during his first few years.
His last few years at work, Sagner said he supervised an average of 50 adult probationers convicted of felonies. Probation officer assistants now supervise adults convicted of misdemeanors, he said.
Information about how many probation officers were working when Sagner was hired was not readily available, Associate Commissioner Cynthia Brann said in an email. Prior to his retirement, Sagner was one of 66 probation officers in Maine. There also were a dozen probation officer assistants working for the Department of Corrections.
Technology has had a huge impact in the way probation officers do their jobs, Sagner said.
“When I started, we couldn’t check up on people as easily,” he said. “If you wanted to get in touch with someone, you sent them a letter. Now, I spend a lot of time in front of my computer reading reports, answering email, but, there are little things you can do in this job that can make a big difference for someone.”
One of the things Sagner said he did was come into the office at 5 a.m. once a week so probationers could check in with him on their way to work, instead of having to ask an employer for time off. Having a job and getting an education are two of the things that prevent recidivism, he said.
For a January 2013 report, researchers examined 28,884 offenders who entered probation between January 2004 and December 2011. Just 6.6 percent had gone to college, while 45.8 percent had graduated high school or earned a GED. The report said that 47.6 percent left school in the 11th grade or earlier.
The report did not include figures on employment but concluded that 24 percent of probationers are rearrested for a crime during their first year of probation. That figure rose to 33.1 percent in the third year of probation.
“The vast majority of people we never see again,” Sagner said. “They made a mistake, they pay for their crimes, they go on with their lives and become productive citizens.”
Sagner said that the common denominator in the people he’s supervised over the years is a lack of parental supervision.
“Many people just come from dysfunctional families,” he said. “What we need is a lot more parental responsibility in this society.”
In addition to impacting the lives of people on probation, Sagner has been a mentor for a new generation of probation officers.
Corey Day, 44, who has been a colleague of Sagner’s for 10 years, turned to Sagner for advice. Day was a police officer before joining the Department of Corrections
“He has an incredible memory of the people he’s supervised,” Day said. “He’s been here for all the changes in system. But, more important than anything, he’s able to apply whatever level of oversight a probationer requires.”
Sagner, who is a member of the Old Town School Board, started thinking about retirement when he realized he was supervising the grandchildren of former probationers.
In retirement, he plans to continue working part-time as a juvenile probation officer for the Penobscot Nation on Indian Island. He also might go back to college to work toward a master’s degree in English.
No matter what direction his life takes next, the United Baptist Church in Old Town will continue to play an important role in his life. Sagner said that his faith helped sustain him in his work as a probation officer.
“It’s given me the compassion to see people in a positive light and to say, ‘There but for the Grace of God go I,’” he said.