Probation bungles raise alarm

State leaders vow to fix deficiencies when the legislature resumes work in January. 'Rotten performance,' Basnight says

Staff WritersDecember 12, 2008 

  • Suggested Thursday by various state officials.

    * Post jobs in a timely manner. Hire people to fill the numerous vacancies across the state.

    * Offer better training and make sure new hires are trained faster.

    * Pay more and make sure salaries of probation officers with experience are keeping up with new hires.

    * Get more resources in the hands of probation officers, including radios to communicate with other law enforcement and laptops to work while on the road checking up on probationers.

    * Enter probation records in the state's Division of Criminal Information database so police know when a person being arrested is on probation.

Senate president pro tem Marc Basnight on Thursday issued his review of the management of North Carolina's probation system: "rotten performance."

"From all that I can see, they have failed all of North Carolina," Basnight said. "They didn't seem to be too deeply concerned about what was happening."

Basnight and other state leaders said Thursday that North Carolina's troubled probation system should be a top priority in the legislature and in the administration of Gov.-elect Beverly Perdue. The officials were responding to a series of articles in The News & Observer this week detailing the shortcomings: offenders ignored, arrest warrants unfiled, and job vacancies that lead to high caseloads for officers.

Basnight, a Manteo Democrat, was shocked to find out that 118 vacant probation jobs haven't been filled, as well as 26 positions the General Assembly funded in July to be filled in the fall.

"Who in the hell did that?" Basnight asked. "You would have thought it would be a big priority to hire immediately."

When the legislature returns to work in January, Basnight said, fixing the system will be his most important task. He acknowledged that it will be Perdue's role to choose who leads the agency, but he added, "we will be vocal."

Perdue said she was going to assemble a team to rebuild probation.

"The whole system is in need of repair," Perdue said. "It puts life at risk. There is a disconnect that has to be fixed, and I'm going to fix it."

Perdue said she is concerned about probation officers swamped by huge caseloads.

"We need to have enough staffing to allow good old-fashioned probation work," she said. "Hard-nosed probation work, like drug testing, urinalysis, did you go to work today, I'll put your body in jail if you misbehave."

Scant supervision, lethal consequences

The News & Observer reported this week that the probation system had lost track of nearly 14,000 criminals it is supposed to supervise and guide toward more productive lives. Since the start of 2000, 580 people have killed in North Carolina while under the watch of probation officers -- 17 percent of all convictions for intentional killings.

Probation officials provided scant supervision in some of those cases, and they failed to review available data to spot broader problems; the newspaper couldn't review probation's actions in all cases because officials wouldn't release relevant records. But probation officers had been hampered by a dated data system that made it difficult to know everything they should about what's happening with the people they're trying to supervise.

In one case, probation chief Robert Guy shut down an experimental e-mail alert system that would have provided key information about two previous arrests of one of the suspects in the slaying of Eve Carson, the UNC student body president killed in March. The General Assembly reacted to that crime by approving $2.5 million for 26 new probation jobs on July 16, but no one has yet been hired.

Correction officials recently completed an online system to alert probation officers when their charges get into more trouble.

Guy and Correction Secretary Theodis Beck did not respond Thursday to requests for interviews.

State Sen. Phil Berger, the Republican leader, said Guy should be fired, citing Guy's statement that he was let down by probation officials in his chain of command. "When you blame everybody below you, there is something is wrong with your ability to get things done or to motivate people," Berger said.

Berger, a Rockingham County lawyer, also called for an independent audit of the probation system, including a review of internal records that are generally kept confidential within the department.

Perdue did not say who would lead the Department of Correction and the probation system in her administration, but said she would scrutinize closely every administrator whose job she controls.

Governor has yet to respond

Gov. Mike Easley has been asked for interviews about probation but granted none. On Wednesday, Easley promised The News & Observer a telephone interview Thursday but did not call.

Attorney General Roy Cooper said he would like probation officials to take up his April offer to join the state's Division of Criminal Information network, which police use to find criminal records, warrants and missing person alerts. Police officers would know whether someone they arrested was on probation, and probation officers would be alerted if police stopped their clients.

"It wouldn't cost much of anything," Cooper said. "It's frustrating for law enforcement and dangerous for the public when probationers commit more crime and avoid jail."

Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, a Carrboro Democrat and co-chairwoman of the criminal justice budget subcommittee, hopes to get her colleagues in the legislature talking about probation in early January.

"We've got to fix this, and we've got to fix this fast," Kinnaird said. "It's a great disappointment and perhaps even a greater tragedy that we did not take advice on how to track those probationers and prevent these many tragedies. It was a failure on many levels. It was a failure on the department level and, I think, it was a legislative failure. We asked for some things to be done, and we didn't follow up on it."

joseph.neff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4516

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