State outlines $2.5 million probation fix

A plan to patch a system with lapses that led to deaths mainly calls for more staff

Staff WritersOctober 8, 2008 

  • Here's how the $2.5 million the legislature approved to help fix problems with the state's probation system would be spent this fiscal year:

    $1.6 MILLION: 20 probation officers and six new probation office supervisors

    $236,000: mentoring program for new officers

    $200,000: project manager to develop new technological and risk-assessment tools

    $196,000: 63 new radios for Durham County officers

    $149,000: workload and staffing study

    $125,170: training

— State probation officials outlined a plan Tuesday to spend $2.5 million to help fill cracks in a system whose failures have been highlighted this year by several high-profile homicides.

Nearly 70 percent of the money would go to creating 26 new positions -- 20 new probation officers and six new supervisors, Theodis Beck, secretary of the state Department of Correction, told legislators.

It was the first time Beck and Robert Guy, head of the state's probation and parole system, have laid out their plan for spending money the General Assembly doled out this summer in response to the mishandling of the suspects charged with murdering UNC-Chapel Hill student Eve Carson and Duke graduate student Abhijit Mahato.

"We're all very disturbed by what's happened," Beck said. "This is not something we would have expected to deal with. We're here because of the failure of two cases out of 117,000."

But this spring, probation officials found festering problems in the Durham and Wake offices after taking a closer look at the oversight of Laurence Alvin Lovette, 17, and Demario Atwater, 22. Both were on probation at the time of the two high-profile homicides. But neither was adequately supervised, according to a probation department audit.

Many of the same problems had existed for years, and correction department e-mail correspondence and internal documents showed that the higher rungs of the probation department were aware of several crises in the Wake and Durham offices.

Beck and Guy were called before a legislative committee to update legislators on the findings of a federal audit and their remedial plans.

Among problems discussed at the meeting were difficulties in keeping their offices staffed and trained. Because starting salaries are $31,000 and few officers end up making much more than $45,000, Guy said, the best qualified job applicants are turning down job offers for higher salaries elsewhere.

High turnover means that remaining officers end up with caseloads much higher than what policy calls for, and offenders are left without the oversight they need, Guy said.

They also discussed the inadequacy of technology systems in the larger criminal justice system. And they will soon test a $5 million project to link Wake County's court, jail, police and probation systems. Currently, all of those technology systems operate independently and information is not always shared among agencies that need it, McCoy said.

"They don't talk to each other," McCoy said. Coordinating the systems "may save lives," he added.

Despite the proposed solutions, some legislators left the hearing dissatisfied. The proposal did not designate which counties would get additional officers.

"I was hoping for more concrete suggestions on how to deal with these continuing problems," said state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, a Carrboro Democrat.

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

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