Perdue signs probation reform bill

Staff WriterJuly 30, 2009 

— Several reforms to the state’s probation system are materializing this week, more than a year after the failings of the statewide system first surfaced following the death of UNC student body president Eve Carson.

A bill that would allow probation officers to look at juvenile records of offenders and allow police to search probationers without securing warrants beforehand was signed into law by Gov. Beverly Perdue this afternoon at a press conference held in front of Raleigh Police Department headquarters. The bill passed the state Senate last night and the state House of Representatives earlier this week.

The access to juvenile records and expansion of warrantless searches were what Perdue called a "critical first step."

Various law enforcement, from the state Highway Patrol and Raleigh Police Department were also on hand to demonstrate an enhanced database that allows police officers to instantly check to see if a person is on probation. The $20,000 fix merged N.C. Department of Correction files with existing systems that law enforcement officers used to check on criminal backgrounds or to see if individuals had active warrants.

"It ridiculous in my mind that we weren't already doing it," Perdue said.

She also urged House and Senate leaders to spend $24.2 million over the next two years to hire 175 probation officers and trainers and to give $2,200 to 1,048 existing probation officers.

The Senate went along with part of her plan, adding 129 probation officers and supervisors and giving most probation officers a bump in salary. As the state's finances worsened through the spring, the House decided not to add any new positions or salary increases.

The fate of Perdue's proposal isn't clear; the House and Senate are tussling over their final budget bill, which could emerge as early as next week.

The push for the changes in the probation system came in part because of a series of articles in The News & Observer that detailed a probation system in crisis after Carson’s March 2008 killing as well as the death of Abhijit Mahato, a Duke University graduate student shot to death in his Durham apartment in January 2008.

Other findings in the News & Observer investigation found that high numbers of vacancies forced probation 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.

Since taking office in January of this year, Perdue removed the probation division’s top managers and called for reexamining how the department monitors offenders.

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.

The new legislation would allow confidential juvenile records to be accessed by probation officers in situations where the crime committed would equate to a felony in the adult system.

The new law will also give 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.

sarah.ovaska@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4622

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