Bill to loosen juvenile records

Staff WriterMay 14, 2009 

— Probation officers could access juvenile court records and police would get the power to search probationers without a warrant in proposed legislation that sailed through the state Senate on Wednesday with little discussion.

The proposed bill, part of a probation system reform package recommended by Gov. Beverly Perdue and state correction officials, has not yet been voted on in the House.

"This bill is brought to us by the Department of Correction to clear up certain questions about probation officers and the authority they have," said Sen. Tony Rand, a Fayetteville Democrat who sponsored it.

The push for legislation came in part because of a series of articles in The News & Observer that detailed a probation system in crisis.

High vacancies forced officers to carry perilously high caseloads, resulting in botched oversight of many cases and 13,000 missing offenders. Since 2000, 580 probationers have killed while under state supervision.

Perdue has ousted top managers in the probation division. She has also recommended spending $24.2million over the next two years to hire 175 more officers and trainers, and to give raises to incumbent officers.

Legislators will hash out budget proposals through the summer.

Under Rand's proposal, probation officers would have access to juvenile records that typically are shielded from public inspection.

Carson, Mahato cases

The request comes after the high-profile murder cases of Eve Carson, the UNC-Chapel Hill student body president, and Abhijit Mahato, a Duke University graduate student, exposed a disconnect between the adult courts and the juvenile justice system.

Laurence Lovette, a teen charged with first-degree murder in the Carson and Mahato cases, had a record of serious crimes in the juvenile system. Prosecutors in adult court failed to take that record into account when arranging a plea for one of his first offenses in the adult system.

Lovette was put on probation and received no supervision.

The bill would give police the power to conduct warrantless searches of probationers and their vehicles if the police had reasonable suspicion that offender had a weapon or was engaged in criminal activity. The bill also makes it clear that any probation officer can search any probationer, his vehicle and his home.

The changes on searches came in response to the experience of Mark Hornsby, a Harnett County probation officer disciplined for conducting a search in Harnett County of a convicted drug dealer on probation in Sampson County. Before that, Hornsby had been lauded for years for his success in seizing guns and drugs from probationers on his watch.

anne.blythe@newsobserver.com or 919-932-8741

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