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Originally published Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 10:10 PM

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Jerry Large

Counselors turn bad into good

Sokpul Chea deals everyday with people who have done bad things — assault, drunken driving, theft and more. Some had a rare lapse...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Sokpul Chea deals everyday with people who have done bad things — assault, drunken driving, theft and more.

Some had a rare lapse in judgment, others have made a habit of doing wrong and most could use help staying clear of trouble.

Chea is a counselor in the Probation Services Division of Seattle's Municipal Court. It's a job that doesn't get noticed except when something goes wrong, but it deserves more attention because it has a lot of potential for getting people off destructive paths, helping those who want to help themselves.

Probation officers monitor compliance with court orders, assess the needs of offenders, make referrals to services from housing to substance-abuse counseling to skills training. They also prepare reports for judges before and during probation.

Chea's background for the work includes education and training, but he also benefits from his own experiences.

Chea never ran afoul of the law, but he knows how easy it would have been to do that, and he knows how much it means to have help when you need it.

He understands that we are all responsible for our choices but not always for our circumstances.

"I grew up with the helping hand of the government," he said when we met in the court building in downtown Seattle. Welfare helped his mother raise five children on her own in an Everett housing project.

Chea's father, a university professor, was executed during the madness of the Pol Pot era in Cambodia when Chea was an infant. In 1979, when he was about 4, his family came to Everett as refugees.

His neighborhood was full of young people struggling with identity issues and poverty. Gangs flourished, but Chea steered clear of them.

His mother never let her children forget what had happened in Cambodia and that they owed it to their father to succeed here.

Chea worked in strawberry and raspberry fields, backbreaking work that solidified his desire to use education as a way out. All the siblings have done well.

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His family pushed Chea toward business when he entered the University of Washington, but he decided, "My passion is to work with people."

He switched to sociology, worked summers in a food-distribution program and after graduation landed a job counseling gang-involved kids around White Center.

Five years ago he took on his current role as a probation officer doing similar work on a bigger scale.

Chea has a caseload of 167 people. He's actively working with most, but about 50 are on warrant status, meaning they're hiding out, waiting to be arrested again. Some people don't want help. Jail may be the only answer for them.

But when probation works, it helps people straighten out their lives. That's better than spending money housing them in jail.

It's better for an offender to keep holding down a job, going to school or contributing to his family than to have him sit in jail, then come out jobless or have his education disrupted, Chea said.

Seattle Municipal Court currently oversees 5,981 offenders, according to Betty McNeely, Probation Services Division director. Aside from supervisors and clerical workers, there are 33 probation officers like Chea.

McNeely said each offender assigned to probation brings a unique set of circumstances, and some require specialized counselors.

Chea handles general probation cases, but there are counselors dedicated to mental-health court, the community-services program (offenders assigned community service as restitution) or domestic-violence cases.

Probation officers don't get much attention, but when their job is done well we all benefit.

Keeping more people out of jail and out of trouble is cheaper, and ultimately safer, for the community.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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