Like many state probation and parole agents, Kescia Holmes took the job hoping to make a difference in people's lives and steer the wayward back onto the right path.

The 10-year veteran still recalls the young drug addict intent on giving her a hard time. Holmes delved deeper and discovered that the woman had been molested as a child. The agent helped get her into counseling and drug treatment. The addict cleaned up — and stayed clear of the law.

Things were different then. Smaller caseloads. More face time with clients. More opportunities to make an impact.

Budget cuts and a slumping economy have left the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services with about 130 fewer agents than it had in the late 1990s. With state agencies recently ordered to cut their budgets by another 3 percent, the situation shows little sign of reversing.

That means the 471 agents who remain must track and supervise around 109 offenders each, on average.

Holmes has it even worse in Charleston County, juggling more than 150 cases at a time. She keeps plugging away, still aspiring to the same goals and ideals. But most days, it's hard work just keeping her head above the rising tide of paperwork and demands for her time.

"I know I can't save 150 people," Holmes, 36, said. "I used to be real hard on myself, more than anything. But then I just came to the realization that there's no way a person comes in and sits with me for a period of, at the most, 15 or 20 minutes and all of a sudden I can just change their world. I can't do that."

Holmes' supervisor, Lynne Moldenhauer, understands this new reality all too well. Her office lost a team of seven agents in recent months, meaning some folks are saddled with more than 170 cases each.

"It's become tantamount to putting out fires," Moldenhauer said. "I have seen the level of exhaustion setting in."

Turnover is a persistent problem. The demanding and risk-filled job pays $26,750 to start, and many agents eventually jump ship for better- paying law enforcement opportunities. Each time, the office bleeds institutional knowledge as rookies are brought in to fill the slots.

"When I hire people, I know they're not going to be here for a lifetime," Moldenhauer said. "If I can get two years out of them, I'm grateful."

When Moldenhauer started out 22 years ago in Richland County, agents were more like social workers, working to connect offenders with jobs and other services that would help them succeed and avoid returning to a life of a crime.

Agents now function more like an arm of law enforcement, with less time to work with "clients" on an individual basis. And in this tight economy, agents have fewer places to send offenders who need jobs or various social services to get back on track.

The downturn also creates desperation on the streets, driving more offenders back into an illicit drugs-and-guns economy that has fueled a startling amount of bloodshed in the Lowcountry and other places in recent years.

"It's kind of a cataclysmic event," Moldenhauer said. "I don't think anyone could have envisioned the kind of numbers or the staggering amount of violence that we're seeing here in the Charleston area."

State officials said that despite the challenges, the probation and parole agency has scored some successes. Agents have collected some $58 million in victim restitution money from offenders since 1999.New satellite monitoring technology has allowed agents to better track sex offenders, and new partnerships with community churches have helped ease probationers back into regular life, they said.

It is clear that Moldenhauer and many other agents still believe in the value of the work, its potential to deliver positive change. But she also believes that probation is a privilege, and those who disregard the rules shouldn't get chance after chance to screw up.

Moldenhauer is all too familiar with the stress, the worry of having a repeat criminal mess up again and cause more harm in the community.

That happened in May as she was boarding a plane for a long-overdue vacation. She glanced at the person next to her, who was reading The Post and Courier. The story atop the front page described how a registered sex offender on probation had been arrested again, this time on charges of attacking a sleeping 17-year-old girl and raping her.

The story haunted Moldenhauer the rest of the day.

Then, in July, gunfire erupted at the Ashley Shores apartment complex in North Charleston, leaving two men wounded and spawning two retaliatory shootings that same night. At least two of the men involved were on probation at the time, one for drug offenses, the other for past assault charges.

Such incidents pain and frustrate Moldenhauer. So she and her agents keep trying to stay on top of their caseloads, look for red flags and take action before something bad happens.

"We all do the best we can, but at the end of the day these people are at home in the community," she said. "They are not tethered to us."

Holmes has seen worry eat away at fellow agents fearful of having one of their charges end up in the middle of some high-profile crime. She prefers to focus on the work at hand and avoid dwelling on what could happen.

"That's how you get burned out fast," she said. "But it's difficult. I know what my people are doing when they are sitting in front of me, or maybe if I go out and do a home visit. But there are 24 hours in a day."

Longtime judge: 'I have to say I still have hope'

Most weeks, Charleston County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Hughston Jr. spends a full day on the bench dealing with criminals who have violated probation.

He retired in 1998 but continues to work as a retired Active Circuit Judge.

He recently agreed to sit down with The Post and Courier to talk about what's good and bad about the South Carolina probation system and the pressures it places on judges.

Here are some of his responses to the newspaper's questions:

P&C: Is the state's system broken?

Hughston: We have a good system. ... We've got all the tools, all the laws we need. ... We just don't have enough people, and that comes down to money.

P&C: What would you do to improve the system?

Hughston: If I could do anything, it would be to double the number of probation and parole officers and pay them more. ... I'm not slamming them. We just don't have the money or people to carry it through.

P&C: What's the biggest burden on a judge in determining whether to let criminals and probation violators out on probation?

Hughston: The big job a judge has is to try to differentiate between the really bad boys or girls that are going to go out and commit some really horrible crime.

P&C: Does the fact that many criminals violate probation and are repeatedly placed on probation cause many of them to thumb their noses at the system?

Hughston: There's certainly something to that ... a lack of respect for the system.

P&C: How do you decide whether to lock someone up or let them go on probation?

Hughston: I wish there was some way of magically knowing which ones are really bad people and which ones are not. ... The 20- or 30-year sentences, those are the cases that are easy. It's the ones who haven't quite done it yet ... is this some guy I can take a chance on?

I have to say I still have hope, and I still have to come out at the end of the day and feel 51 percent good about it, at least.

P&C: Are judges under pressure to release criminals on probation because of jail and prison overcrowding?

Hughston: There's certainly no direct pressure, but unless you're living in a bubble, you're aware of the numbers. ... I'd hate to admit that.

P&C: Do you think the state's sentencing laws need to be reformed to reduce a disparity in sentences?

Hughston: I'm a strong proponent of sentencing guidelines. There needs to be some rational, objective instrument available to judges in making sentencing decisions ... but I don't think it should be mandatory.

P&C: The attorney general has proposed abolishing parole for violent crime. Is that a workable idea?

Hughston: The key is having those guidelines at a reasonable level so you don't double the prison population. ... The problem is, you can't get the legislature to approve something that will lower the sentences. You've got to camouflage it some way.

P&C: Some say that one of the problems for repeat offenders is that the state has given up almost entirely on real rehabilitation programs for prison inmates. What's your view?

Hughston: All we are doing is warehousing them. It's called the Department of Corrections, but we are not doing a very good job of correcting them.

P&C: As a judge how would you feel if the criminal you let free on probation committed some heinous crime?

Hughston: I live in fear all the time of not putting someone in jail who should be put in jail and then having them go out and commit one of these horrible crimes. I'm lucky not to have had that happen. But I do live in fear of that.

Questions and answers were edited for brevity and clarity.