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Oil boom increasing work for parole officers

BISMARCK (AP) -- Parole and probation officers are increasingly overwhelmed with workloads as North Dakota's population rises and more ex-convicts flock to the state in search of a good economy, a job and a fresh start.

State records show that North Dakota currently has about 17,000 more jobs than takers, mostly because of the oil boom in the western part of the state. The number of out-of-state parolees moving into that region alone quadrupled between 2010 and last year, and it shows no signs of slowing down.

"It's a challenge to keep up, no question," said Leslie "Barney" Tomanek, director of the state Department of Corrections' parole and probation division. "We're doing the best we can with what we have."

Growing caseloads is a problem nationwide as cash-strapped states have steadily slashed correction departments' budgets. But it is a new phenomenon in North Dakota, which has a billion-dollar state budget surplus and where booming oil activity has pushed the state's population to a record high.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said funding for more law enforcement is especially needed in western North Dakota, where the population -- and crime -- has increased with oil activity.

"We're finding that they're just getting swamped," Stenehjem said. "We can only work these folks so hard before they burn out."

Tomanek said the number of parolees and probationers in North Dakota was pegged at 5,340 in March, up 536 in two years. The number of out-of-state offenders coming to North Dakota rose from 440 to 543 during that time under an interstate compact that passes on the supervision of criminals to the state where they reside.

The released offenders' crimes "run the gamut," Tomanek said, and include murder.

He said many of the parolees and probationers released from the North Dakota prison system -- and the bulk of the out-of-state felons -- are being lured by scores of unfilled jobs in the state's oil patch, and the city of Williston is at the center.

Williston parole and probation officer Lloyd Haagenson, who has been in law enforcement for two decades in western North Dakota, said it was rare for a parolee from another state to relocate to the area until the oil bonanza. But in 2011, his office processed 76 interstate compact cases, up from 19 the year before, and about three dozen out-of-state parolees already this year have indicated they intend to move to the area, he said.

"They are coming from all over the nation," said Haagenson, who heads the Williston district, which has only two other officers and is responsible for monitoring offenders in four western North Dakota counties.

Officers perform record checks, verify employment, administer drug tests and visit offenders' homes, which has become increasingly difficult with the housing shortage in western North Dakota.

"It's a challenge and sometimes burdensome," Haagenson said. "People are living in campers in the middle of a pasture, to man camps to bunking on people's couches."

There are 71 sworn officers who supervise offenders throughout North Dakota, or an average about 75 cases per officer. Bismarck has the highest ratio of offenders-to-officer, around 90-to-1, followed by western North Dakota, at up to 80-to-1, Tomanek said.

All officers have seen their caseloads increase in recent years, pushing the limit of the agency's supervisory standards, he said. An ideal caseload would be about 60 offenders per officer.

"We have exceeded that pretty much everywhere in the state," Tomanek said.