Probation manager steps down

James Fullwood oversaw the region that includes Wake, Durham and Orange and that had high-profile problems

Staff WritersFebruary 12, 2009 

The resignation of a key manager in the state's probation system signals that the shakeup continues in an agency with deep problems that affect public safety.

James "Woody" Fullwood, the regional manager of a 21-county probation judicial division area that includes Wake, Durham and Orange counties, abruptly stepped down from his job Tuesday evening. Fullwood had spoken in earlier interviews about looking forward to working for Gov. Beverly Perdue.

In January, probation chief Robert Guy retired when Perdue said she would not retain the longtime director of the division. Guy had earlier blamed Fullwood for problems in the probation system.

The personnel changes were welcomed as good first steps by officials worried about the probation system's failings.

"They're making steps in the right direction," said Eugene Brown, a City Council member in Durham, where some probationers were ignored for months before going on to commit murders. The Durham probation office has been plagued by poor case management, high turnover and vacancies.

But at a time when crowded state prisons have lawmakers contemplating sending fewer criminals to prison, Brown wants state legislators to pump more money into the probation system so additional officers can be hired.

Quick fixes, such as management changes, aren't enough, said Colon Willoughby, Wake's district attorney. The structured-sentencing system can leave judges with no choice but to put an offender on probation, he said.

"We ought to look at who we're putting on probation; are we putting people that any reasonable person would say they're not going to succeed?" Willoughby said. "If we are, then we're probably overburdening probation officers with people that we all know will not be successful."

Others have suggested using more pre-sentencing reports to determine who is a poor risk for probation.

Fullwood's resignation came less than a week after The News & Observer reported that he had ordered a two-day investigation into a potted plant found tipped over in the office of a Harnett County probation supervisor. Fullwood was also the manager who oversaw the Wake and Durham offices, described by Guy and others as the worst-run in the state.

Fullwood, 60, sent an e-mail message to his staff late Tuesday afternoon, telling them he was retiring after 36 years with the Department of Correction. His departure was immediate.

"Effective today at 5 p.m., I will be utilizing leave until March 31, 2009," Fullwood wrote. "As I depart, I challenge each and every one of you to omit the word try and replace it with I will. Stand tall."

Fullwood, who made $89,144 annually, had been in charge of the the state's Judicial Division 2, one of four regional divisions in the state. Fullwood declined to comment when reached at home.

Fullwood's leadership had come under scrutiny after an N&O series published in December. Statewide, the investigation found that 580 probationers had killed since the start of 2000.

The series also showed that the probation system had lost track of nearly 14,000 convicted criminals. Many of the problems were in counties under Fullwood's management, including the highly publicized killings last year of UNC-Chapel Hill student body president Eve Carson and Duke graduate student Abhijit Mahato. The men accused in their killings had received scant attention from probation officers in Wake and Durham counties.

In 2006, Fullwood ordered an investigation of a toppled potted plant in the office of probation supervisor Joyce James. Two probation managers from other counties questioned 20 officers and a janitor and examined time cards. They concluded: "It is undetermined as to whom or how the plant located in chief probation/parole officer James' office got overturned."

Fullwood will be replaced temporarily by Diane Isaacs, who had been his assistant administrator. Guy's position has yet to be filled; Tim Moose, a longtime probation employee, is serving as the interim director.

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

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