Feds outline ways to patch N.C. probation

Reviews prompted by killings of UNC-CH and Duke students find heavy caseloads, information gaps

Staff WritersAugust 20, 2008 

— A federal report, released late Tuesday, highlighting flaws in North Carolina's troubled probation system will be the subject of a meeting today between state and federal corrections officials in Washington.

The National Institute of Corrections, a federal agency, was called in last spring to do an independent evaluation of the state's probation system after problems were exposed in the handling of the two suspects charged with killing Eve Carson, president of the study body at UNC-Chapel Hill. One suspect also stands accused of killing Abhijit Mahato, a Duke University graduate student.

State Secretary of Correction Theodis Beck requested a swift federal review of the state system. That audit found that probation offices grapple with heavy caseloads, high turnover, an information disconnect between adult and juvenile courts, and archaic computer systems that make it difficult to share information. These findings are similar to a report the same agency made on the state's probation system in 2004.

At the same time, Robert Guy, head of the division of community corrections, also ordered an extensive state review of the Wake and Durham probation offices. That audit found that in 80 percent of the 1,400 cases examined in Durham, policies were not followed adequately, according to Tuesday's federal report.

After discovering the mistakes made by the Wake and Durham county probation offices handling the cases of Demario Atwater and Laurence Alvin Lovette, the suspects in the college murder cases, Guy made management changes in those offices.

State Correction officials received the federal report July 29 or 30, according to Keith Acree, the department's spokesman. Department officials reluctantly released a "final draft" report Tuesday evening in response to a News & Observer public information request made last week.

The federal review and findings are to serve as the backbone for how to allocate the $2.5 million that state legislators added this summer to the state probation system's budget.

Acree cautioned that Guy and Beck have not yet discussed the report's findings with the reviewers.

Guy, reached Tuesday night, declined to comment.

The reviewers spent 2 1/2 days in late May with North Carolina probation officials, interviewing 87 people and monitoring how offenders assigned to probation in Wake County were entered into the system.

Their report suggests that the Wake County offices look into preparing pre-sentencing reports, which would give judges a more exhaustive look at an offender's background.

Wake District Attorney Colon Willoughby agreed that would be a noble goal, but the research required for those reports would be too taxing on already-overburdened probation officers.

"It's impossible for them to properly supervise people, much less do a pre-sentencing evaluation and supervise," Willoughby said.

Although there are no specific suggestions for how many officers each probation office should have, the federal reviewers included broad policy and management suggestions. Those recommendations include:

* Revamping the probation intake office in Wake County so offenders do not slip through the cracks right after a court hearing.

* Giving probation officers a mix of high-risk and low-risk offenders.

* Developing a statewide policy for the distribution of cases if there is turnover in an office and staff positions are not immediately filled.

* Creating a screening process so high-risk offenders who are being supervised at the lowest level will be forced to be in closer contact with a probation officer.

* Pursuing new state laws that would allow probation officers to access juvenile records, which, in most cases, are sealed.

* Setting up policies so new officers would not immediately go out in the field and begin supervising offenders.

* Developing legislation that would require law enforcement agencies to contact probation offices if an offender is picked up on new charges.

sarah.ovaska@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4622

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