Probation changes under way

Alvin Keller brings experience as a military judge to his job as state correction secretary

Staff WritersFebruary 22, 2009 

  • Keller said he is undecided on whether he'll honor a public records decision made by his predecessor.

    In December, Theodis Beck agreed to release audits in more than 2,000 cases where a probationer was charged with committing a serious crime while under supervision. The follow-up reports evaluate whether the officer and supervisor did their jobs properly.

    Beck released the reports in 24 cases. Those reports reveal a pattern of breakdowns and failures. Keller said he'd decide in the coming weeks whether to release the records.

As part of his crash course on North Carolina's troubled probation system, Correction Secretary Alvin Keller shadowed a probation officer making her rounds in Cumberland County.

The retired military judge received a lesson about the 114,000 probationers under his watch.

"When we knocked on the door of the last house, that house was only two blocks away from my home," said Keller, a Fayetteville resident. "Whether on probation or whether in confinement, they're coming home. ... It behooves us to do what we can to make sure they are successful."

Six weeks have passed since Keller and his management team stepped in to run the state's prison and probation systems. They came on board at a time when public confidence in the probation system was low.

A News & Observer investigative series published in December showed that 580 probationers had killed since the start of 2000.

The series showed also that the probation system had lost track of nearly 14,000 convicted criminals.

In January, probation chief Robert Guy retired when Perdue said she would not retain the longtime director of the division. Tim Moose, an interim division chief, has been running the system since then.

Keller and his management team have made changes in their first six weeks on the job: quicker hiring and more training for new officers, and expanded computer systems that provide officers with more information about their charges.

Keller and Jennie Lancaster, the chief operating officer for the state Department of Correction, described their findings in 40-minute interview Friday.

'One message'

In recent years, street-level officers have complained about mixed messages from system chiefs. In a state with crowded prisons, probation system managers discouraged officers from sending probationers back to prison even when they broke the terms of their supervision.

"We are preaching one message," Lancaster said. "The core mission is public safety."

From the front-line officers to the supervisors overseeing them, employees are expected to know policies and procedures, and to follow them, Lancaster said.

Neither Keller nor Lancaster expects offenders never to commit any other crimes.

They also know that probationers will miss scheduled meetings and drug screenings, and violate other terms of their probation. Officers will not always be expected to revoke a probation under such circumstances. Each case should be considered on an individual basis.

"We will back you if you're doing your job," Lancaster said. "It's making sure we're all on the same page about our core mission."

Changing the mind-set

During his eight years as chief circuit military judge for the Navy-Marine Corps Trial Judiciary, Keller always took time after a trial to talk with the Marine or sailor leaving his courtroom. He wanted each one to know that although he had made a mistake, his life was not over.

That message, Keller says, is one he hopes to circulate through the state's prison and probation populations.

"You can just take that from Camp Lejeune to here," Keller said. "It's still the same thing. ... We're doing everything we can to change the mind-set."

Dropping in

Gov. Beverly Perdue told her Cabinet shortly after she took the oath of office that she wants to know what's happening in the state's departments and divisions, even if things aren't going well.

Keller and Lancaster want the same thing from the workers they oversee.

Lancaster, who spent many years working in the state's prisons, has established a reporting system through which all employees are expected to alert superiors to anything they think might be problematic.

Lancaster pointed at Keller: "He preaches 'No surprises.' "

Keller says he expects supervisors to keep him abreast of the needs and inner workings of the probation system.

But he also plans to find out for himself what's going on by dropping in unannounced in offices across the state.

Technology

In addition to setting up a new reporting system, the corrections officers are trying to bring archaic technology into a new age.

Already, through an interfacing of courts and probation system computers, officers are alerted when something new about one of their charges shows up on a court document.

Soon, through, by coordinating State Bureau of Investigation computers and those in the Department of Correction, the leaders hope that law enforcement officers will be able to find out on the street when someone they stop is on probation and the status of their cases.

Lancaster said the department is making headway on filling vacancies that have forced some officers to carry perilously high caseloads.

After winning approval last year from the General Assembly for 29 new positions, they have filled 12. They also have begun continuous postings for probation officers on the state personnel Web sites -- a step that will cut down on the weeks it takes to find qualified applicants to fill vacant positions.

Over the next few weeks, Keller and Lancaster plan to meet with supervisors, managers and chief probation officers to hear their concerns.

"We're learning a lot about this organization," Keller said.

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

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