RALEIGH — Vacant positions in the state's probation system are a blessing and a curse.
Correction officials routinely use unspent salary money to pay for overtime, inmate medical care, and workers compensation for injured employees.
But the vacant positions also heap extra work on the state's remaining 1,602 probation officers, who often end up with staggering caseloads. That can result in lax supervision of high-risk offenders, one of the problems found in a News & Observer investigation of the probation system.
Especially in tough economic times, correction officials feel pressure to keep vacant jobs open longer so they can pay the bills.
"It's a balancing act between our ability to operate and our ability to protect the public," Deputy Correction Secretary Tracy Little said. "This is a tough year for us to manage."
Last year the Department of Correction used $68 million in unspent salaries, known as lapsed salaries, for other purposes; that's 5 percent of the Department of Correction's $1.3 billion budget.
The diversion of money budgeted for salaries to meet other needs is common in state government.
"Lapsed salaries are part of the flexibility on which government runs," said House Speaker Joe Hackney, a Democrat from Chapel Hill.
Most of the lapsed salary money came from vacancies among the 22,000 positions in the state prison system.
As of Friday, 109 street-level probation positions were open, and the N.C. Division of Community Corrections has not indicated how, when or whether they'll be filled.
Vacancies have been a constant and unaddressed problem for the agency.
Wake County managers have complained for years that the unfilled positions were killing morale and hurting supervision efforts. That was one of several findings of an N&O series that ran for three days last week, focusing on a statewide probation system in which offenders were unwatched for months, and some went on to commit murders.
Hackney said he expects to see changes at the top of the probation system. Several other legislative leaders pledged late last week to make sure the system gets fixed when they return to Raleigh in January.
"Let's look at the whole department rather than putting great-sounding Band-Aids on something that won't last," said Rep. Alice Bordsen of Alamance County, co-chairwoman of the House criminal justice budget subcommittee.
Gov.-elect Beverly Perdue said Friday that she planned to put together a team to help diminish the workload of probation officers and make sure they get the necessary technology to track offenders.
"I want every probation worker in North Carolina to have the time to get into people's faces who are on probation or on parole, and remind them they are on the streets because they signed a contract," Perdue said.
Gov. Mike Easley, who will step down in January, has not responded to multiple requests for comment from The N&O other than to issue a written statement Dec. 3 recommending that problem offenders be imprisoned.
N.C. Secretary of Correction Theodis Beck, who announced this month that he would retire, and N.C Division of Community Corrections Director Robert Guy spoke to reporters before the series ran, but have not done so since. Beck discusses the probation problems in a letter that appears today in The N&O's Opinion section.
"We've already made some improvements but much work remains to be done," Beck writes. "We pledge to the citizens of North Carolina that we will continue to work tirelessly to restore the public's confidence in our state's probation system."
$2.5 million allocated
In July, the legislature allocated $2.5 million that the probation department said would be used to create 26 new positions.
The money was authorized in response to the serious problems discovered when local university students Abhijit Mahato and Eve Carson were killed.
The men now accused in their killings had been on probation in Wake and Durham counties, one going a year without hearing from his probation officer and the other never meeting his.
Beck says in his letter that the delay in filling the new positions is due partly to conditions the General Assembly established.
The 26 jobs were created in the state budget passed July 16. The legislature required the Department of Correction to report to two different legislative committees before the Office of State Budget and Management would release the funds. One of the committees did not meet until November, which delayed the posting of the jobs, Beck said.
Those restrictions don't apply, however, to the 118 vacancies the division had in late November, now down to 109.
The N.C. Division of Community Corrections has not been continuously posting its openings, as its counterpart, the N.C. Division of Prisons, has been doing for 11 years. Continuous posting allows for a regular flow of applicants, and can shave weeks or even months off job searches in positions with high turnover.
A joint study between the probation system and the Office of State Personnel is looking into changing the posting policy now, said Margaret Jordan, a spokeswoman for the state personnel agency.
But it won't be until February, at the earliest, that the State Personnel Commission meets and could approve a change, Jordan said.
As the department moves to fill its vacancies, judges and others familiar with the probation and court systems are pushing for a more sweeping overhaul.
Judges would like to see new assessments of the program by consultants with no connections to the current administration.
"There seems to be a feeling that probation officers aren't supported by the management," said Carl Fox, an Orange County Superior Court judge.
When the state changed the sentencing system more than a decade ago to try to steer more offenders into the probation system, Hackney said, the idea was to have intensive probation where officers had far fewer cases than they monitor now.
"That's not what we have," Hackney said. "Intensive probation really does work when the caseloads are low."
Orlando Hudson, the chief resident Superior Court judge in Durham, sees how probation officers struggle with high caseloads. Already officers are pressuring him to approve more probation revocations.
But prisons are crowded, Hudson said, and the probation system could do a better job trying to rehabilitate and watch offenders.
"They need to be doing their jobs," Hudson said. "They have the positions, and they're not replacing them. That's a problem."
Marcia Morey, a District Court judge in Durham County who sees many probation cases, said even if there are leadership changes, a similar predicament could arise if other fixes are not made.
"When a judge sentences someone to probation, it should have teeth," Morey said. "This calls for a thorough top-to-bottom investigation for how they train officers, for how they hold management accountable."
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