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The second-chance man


Joe Parks hates it when one of his probationers goes to jail.

It means that despite his best efforts, the soft-spoken former priest's attempt to guide a criminal to the right side of the law and to clean living fell on deaf ears. He hates shutting that door, or even closing it halfway. After more than 25 years as a Maryland parole and probation agent, Parks knows the job is all about second chances.

"A violation to me is a failure because I look at my job as a job of trying to get them to make it," he said.

It's that part of the job, when offenders run out of the proverbial "bites of the apple," that Parks will miss least when he retires this month. After more than a quarter-century of guiding, prodding and counseling parolees and probationers in Howard County, Parks is ready to move on.

At age 72, he said he's tired. He's ready to enjoy his golden years, to spend more time with his wife and daughter, and to focus more on one of his longtime passions, the Patapsco River Power Squadron, where he has taught classes in knots and boating safety.

In Ellicott City's court circles, officials say they'll miss the soft-spoken way he nudges his charges, the way he knows everything about them, the way he listens to their problems and tries to help. They all sing his praises -- even Melvin Wilson, a Columbia man on probation for a 2001 assault.

"I thank you again for your time and that gentleness. You give us all a chance to fix what's wrong," Wilson told Parks during a recent office visit. " ... We are friends. At least I consider that."

"I do, too," Parks said quietly, locking his fatherly, blue-eyed gaze on the Long Reach resident.

Becoming a probation agent wasn't a lifelong dream for Parks. It was a just a job, a place to fit in vocationally after he decided to leave the priesthood in 1977.

Parks, who lives in Glen Burnie, had spent 17 years as a Roman Catholic priest, his last assignment at St. Jane Frances Church in Pasadena before he met a widow with two children who attended a group he ran for people who had lost a spouse to death or divorce.

They did not date. In fact, he said, he learned of her feelings for him only after she let him read her diary. Soon thereafter, he left the priesthood, and they got married.

Parks, whose twin brother is a priest, went to work recruiting volunteers for Baltimore schools, and later, after sending out more than 30 job applications, got the probation job, starting in the Ellicott City office in December 1978.

In some ways, he said, his new line of work was a continuation of his priestly duties.

"He loves people. He loves to help people," said his brother, Monsignor Richard Parks of Sacred Heart of Mary Church in Dundalk. "... He took all his experiences in the priesthood and applied them in that particular job, which is a job of mercy and patience and kindness."

Court officials say they also see signs of his past experience in the work he does today.

"He believes in redemption. He believes in second chances, but not unreasonably," said Howard Circuit Court Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, who has, in the past, asked that Parks be specially assigned to monitor defendants who "need a paternal hand on their shoulder."

There are a few obvious differences between his past and present jobs -- such as the bulletproof vest he wears while conducting home visits, the badge he carries and the police officer he shares office space with in Columbia's Long Reach Village Center.

'Everyone knows him'

"I call Joe the 'Mayor of Long Reach' because everyone knows him," said Howard County Pfc. James Iacarino, who, like Parks, is assigned to Long Reach as part of the Collaborative Supervision and Focused Enforcement (CSAFE) program, which replaced the Glendening administration's HotSpots initiative.

Through the program, which involves collaboration among several law enforcement offices in the county, the two men share information about cases and offenders. The data help Parks, who has been on the Long Reach assignment since 1997, keep track of his probationers and aid Iacarino and other officers in their investigations.

Over the past few years, Iacarino, who goes with Parks to his home visits, said he has seen the friendly but firm way the agent has dealt with his clients and the extra efforts he makes to help them.

During office visits, he makes certain his probationers have done everything the court ordered, said Iacarino and Howard District Judge Sue-Ellen Hantman, who, as a prosecutor, worked with Parks in Long Reach. But Parks, who has been known to dress up as McGruff the Crime Dog and Santa Claus for events, also makes a point to learn about their lives, to talk to their families and to help them when they fall on hard times, they said.

Families are so comfortable with him that they call to report violations. Probationers have been known to confess their transgressions -- including renewed drug use -- to him while sharing their life stories or eating the jelly beans he keeps on his desk, Hantman said.

"A parole and probation agent has to wear a number of different hats -- social worker, guidance counselor, sometimes friend and oftentimes enforcer of the court rules. ... It's tough to know how to balance that," said Mike Zerner, who supervises the Ellicott City and Westminster parole and probation offices. "He has an excellent reputation. He knows how to provide that balance."

Hates to give up

When his probationers make mistakes, he does everything he can to guide them to compliance before asking a judge to issue a violation warrant, lawyers said.

"If someone I represent is violating probation and I see that the [probation agent] was Joe Parks, I know the [client] had many opportunities to right themselves," said Columbia attorney Jason A. Shapiro.

Parks said he knows that although about 20 percent of his clients won't stay out of trouble, the vast majority can. For those who don't, there's often a return visit to court and, maybe, to jail.

When he retires Feb. 27, Parks said, he knows he'll miss the people he works with and for. But it's time to go. It's time to put more into the Patapsco River Power Squadron, the navigational school he serves as commander. It's time to take more rides on the Betty~Jane, the Bayliner named for his wife and daughter.

"As a priest, I tried to help people, and ... [as a probation agent] I helped specific people," he said. "After I retire, I'll still be helping people, but teaching. It's a life of helping people."

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