Despite the crashing economy and the state budget's $2 billion hole, Gov. Beverly Perdue said Friday that she plans to expand one part of government -- the probation system.
Perdue said she is appalled by the numbers of criminals some probation officers must supervise. She will ask the legislature to spend $24.2 million over the next two years to hire 175 probation officers and trainers and to give $2,200 raises to 1,048 existing probation officers. The plan also envisions spending almost $3.7 million in federal stimulus funds.
"The North Carolina probation system is not, was not -- but can be -- in very good shape," Perdue said. "This will increase supervision and decrease caseloads. ... I want to increase safety and decrease crime."
Perdue's announcement was in response to articles in The News & Observer detailing overloaded officers, botched supervision, 13,000 missing offenders and 580 probationers who killed since 2000 while under state supervision.
The probation system continues to struggle with unfilled positions, with 123 vacancies among the 1,800 probation officer jobs. Probation officer pay averages about $37,700 a year.
The governor said she also wants new laws to give probation officers access to an offender's juvenile records. And she wants to subject all probationers to warrantless searches by any probation or police officer.
Given state government's dire financial condition, Perdue's proposals will depend on the reception she gets at the General Assembly.
"I'm going to push as hard as I can, and I've already started lobbying, and I anticipate there will be some people uncomfortable with warrantless searches and opening juvenile records," Perdue said.
Sen. Tony Rand, second in command at the state Senate, will sponsor the legislation, signaling an easier time in the Senate.
House leaders gave a cautious welcome.
"It sounds like an ambitious program, one that's needed," said Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Democrat from Durham and the senior budget writer in the House. "I can't sit here right now and tell you it's going to sail through without seeing where the money is going to come from."
House Speaker Joe Hackney said the governor's budget proposal will compete with pressing needs such as the state health plan, the retirement plan and increased enrollment in public schools and universities.
"We want to assure public safety, and that's what this is about," Hackney said. "Public education and public safety should be our priorities."
'We gave them a lot'
Ellie Kinnaird, a Democrat from Carrboro who has railed against now-ousted probation managers, worries that the governor's proposal could siphon dollars from drug treatment and other programs that help people before their criminal troubles escalate.
"If we don't put money into those programs, before people get put on probation, we're just going to make the system worse," Kinnaird said.
With a new correction secretary and his new management team at the top, Kinnaird said the governor's proposal might not be needed.
"They're on top of things now," Kinnaird said. "We gave them a lot of money last year."
Perdue took a tough tone on crime at her Friday news conference in Asheville, saying she would err on the side of safety when balancing individual rights with public safety.
Asked whether she could cram more wayward probationers into the state's crowded prison system, she replied, "We'll triple or quadruple bunk them."
Perdue announced that the Department of Correction began posting online the names of the 13,000-plus offenders who have absconded from probation.
"I will post the most unattractive mug shot I can find," Perdue said.
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