Probation system still struggles

Technology updates have made officers' lives easier, but low pay and high caseloads make it hard for the state to keep positions filled.

Staff WritersJanuary 31, 2010 

  • Sarah Ovaska, 30, covers the city of Raleigh. She arrived at The News & Observer in 2004 from South Texas, where she covered judicial affairs and politics.

    Ovaska was reared in Massachusetts and graduated from Syracuse University. Until recently, she covered the Wake County court system, and she was part of the reporting team on "Losing Track," The N&O's 2008 series on the problems in the state probation system.

    Anne Blythe , 50, covers the Wake County court system. She has worked at The N&O since 2000, and until recently covered courts and general news in Durham and Orange counties.

    She was one of the reporters who covered the Duke lacrosse case, and she also was part of the reporting team on "Losing Track."

    David Raynor , 40, is news research database editor who has worked at the paper since 1992. Raynor works with reporters in acquiring, maintaining and analyzing data, and he has worked on several award-winning projects, including the "Losing Track" series.

  • How things in the state probation system have changed in the past year.

    Vacancies: Worse. Went from 109 vacancies last year to 141, 8% of the total.

    Funding: Same. Tough budget year means requests for pay raises and 117 new officers got turned down.

    Technology: Better. Officers get daily notice if offenders are arrested. Program in Wake to merge criminal justice databases is started but could cost $46 million to go statewide.

    Tools: Better. 600 new police-style radios will replace field officers' cell phones. New law lets probation officers see juvenile records to assess needs.

    Caseloads: Same. Saw a slight decrease, with the average caseload dropping to 67 from 69.

    Absconders: Better. Probation reduced the number from 14,000 to 11,590. Absconders make up 10 percent of total statewide cases.

  • Several probation laws changed Dec. 1 as part of a legislative package adopted in the summer by the General Assembly.

    Access to juvenile records: Probation officers will have access to the juvenile records for all offenders younger than 25 who came into the system after Dec. 1. One person in each probation district will take a list of offenders to the courts and ask the clerks to note whether juvenile records exist in each case. If they do, officers will be able to review the records and make risk assessments as they develop supervision plans. The records will not become part of any public court documents.

    More uniform conditions of supervision: Probation officers may search any offenders without obtaining a warrant.

    Not only are supervised offenders prohibited from possessing or using any illegal drug or controlled substance, unless a doctor has prescribed it, but they also cannot "knowingly associate" with any known or previously convicted users, possessors or sellers of such substances.

    They also cannot knowingly be in places where such substances are sold, kept or used.

A year after new administrators vowed to improve the state's crippled probation system, one of the agency's biggest problems is worse.

Despite a top-level shake-up designed to correct years of poor management, a reliance on outdated technology and chronically high caseloads for officers, 141 street-level positions are vacant, up 32 from roughly a year ago.

In an economy where a record number of North Carolinians are out of work, the unfilled positions continue to be a big problem. An 8 percent vacancy rate coupled with a 10 percent turnover rate mean remaining officers are responsible for picking up the slack.

"I don't think we're ever going to be at a place when they're all filled," said Tracy Little, deputy secretary of correction. "We have paid some attention to this. I'm not satisfied with where the number is."

Correction officials say they delayed some hires in order to be able to offer jobs to employees of seven prisons the state is closing. They say they focused first on the work to close those prisons, a decision pushed on them by legislators trying to cut the budget.

In North Carolina, roughly 40,000 offenders are in prison, and more than 111,000 are on probation. The state has roughly 1,750 probation officers and supervisors charged with helping low-level offenders rebuild their lives and stay out of costly prisons.

State Sen. John Snow, a Murphy Democrat, was surprised that so many probation positions were still open.

"We did expect that they would be working as hard as they could to get people hired," said Snow, co-chairman of the committee that handles correction funding. "We had hoped that they would fill those vacancies as soon as possible so we could get those people on the street."

Eugene Brown, a Durham City Council member, has been highly critical of the management missteps in Durham, once considered one of the worst-performing districts in the state.

"In an economy like this? This system is mired in a combination of bureaucracy and molasses," Brown said. "What the system is doing is putting our citizens at risk."

State officials, including Gov. Bev Perdue, say vacancies are only part of the story. They are pleased with improved technology that gives officers nearly instant information about the missteps of their charges. They applaud other reforms that give officers a peek at the juvenile records of some of their charges and make conditions of probation more uniform.

"This is a good start, given the situation we found ourselves in," Perdue said. "We have a whole lot of work ahead."

Vows of reform

Alvin Keller Jr., the secretary of correction, had barely taken the job last January when he proclaimed that filling chronic vacancies would be a priority.

The glare of a dismayed public was on the system. Two suspects charged in the March 2008 fatal shooting of Eve Carson, an admired UNC-Chapel Hill student body president, had received scant probation oversight in Wake and Durham counties. The younger suspect, barely 17, was also accused in the January 2008 shooting of Duke University graduate student Abhijit Mahato.

A News & Observer series published in December 2008 also showed that 580 probationers had been convicted of intentional killings from 2000 to 2008 while under the watch of the system - and officers had lost track of 14,000 convicted criminals. Top management had ignored the problems.

Perdue brought in new leaders, including Keller, and she called for sweeping reforms. Keller said the high number of vacancies today is a result of the department's problems holding on to employees. He said low pay and stressful work contribute to high turnover. "The issue is not with the hiring," he said. "The issue is with retaining those employees."

After their first year, the new leadership team with the N.C. Division of Community Corrections acknowledges that it has been a challenging time.

"We've accomplished a lot," said Tim Moose, who took over as acting probation chief last January. "We'll all tell you we still have a long way, but I hope we are at least in the beginning stages of rebuilding that respect and trust."

The new leaders found low morale among street-level officers, who described an atmosphere where they were discouraged from bringing grievances to top managers. Outdated technology made it difficult to keep up with offenders.

"Focus No. 1 has been on our probation officers and chief probation officers, and giving them what they need to do their jobs," Moose said.

Pay for officers is a bit better than in recent years, now starting at $35,337. The department hoped to get $2.3million this year to pad salaries further, but it didn't get that money from the legislature.

Many state agencies had hiring freezes for much of last year, a move that helped close a huge budget shortfall last year. The Correction Department had no such obstacles for probation officers.

Statewide probation leaders asked for 117 new positions but weren't able to get the funding.

Probation system leaders pointed out that 222 people had been hired over the past year, but 159 jobs came open during the same period because of retirements, resignations and a few forced exits.

The Triangle picture

In Durham and Wake, once considered among the worst probation offices in the state, things seem to have gotten better.

Durham still struggles with a higher-than-average number of absconders - offenders who miss curfews and appointments or just can't be found - though the rate has dropped from 21 percent to 19. Wake is now missing 11 percent of its charges, down from 14.

Vacancy rates in Durham are lower than a year ago. Though officers still must routinely pick up extra cases, they acknowledge that new technology makes it easier for them to find out when their charges are headed to court or in more trouble with the law.

"It's gotten a whole lot better because of the communication between all the departments," said Tim Price, a veteran Durham officer who monitors sex offenders. "It's changing gradually. But things are coming."

In Wake, probation officers and supervisors have more tools to keep up with offenders.

By next week, all of the county's nearly 100 probation officers and many supervisors will have radios that will let them communicate directly with law enforcement agencies. Probation officers often go out alone to do night curfew checks, and safety was a top concern, said Maggie Brewer, the head of the Wake office.

Regular audits of officers' caseloads and case management software that pings officers when offenders have been rearrested, or are due for a visit, means probation officers are spending more time tracking down those high-risk offenders instead of shuffling through paperwork.

But Brewer still has eight open positions out of 98. She said she's close to filling four. She started combing through résumés for the other four positions last week. Some of those have been open since September, but Brewer said it has taken time to do thorough checks on applicants.

Vacancies have a long history of creating crises in Wake, where open positions soared to nearly 30 percent of the total positions in 2006. Being highlighted as the worst in the state stung, but Brewer said things are starting to turn around.

"Unfortunately, tragedy happened," Brewer said. "But a lot of great things have come out of it for this agency.

"It's shown some officers that if we don't follow cases, this is what happens."

Easing communication

While the agency continues to struggle to hold onto trained staff and fill open positions, improvements have been made in other areas, including several for officers in the field.

Beyond the new alerts for officers, a new project is running in Wake County that can link all the state's criminal justice databases. State leaders say that, if it could be implemented statewide, it would help eliminate communication failures that can be deadly.

"There are existing examples every day about failure of communication in the arrest and processing of criminals or a person who has done wrong," said state Senate leader Marc Basnight. "These failures occurred because the agencies cannot communicate."

The catch is that it could cost $46 million, according to estimates by the N.C. Office of the State Controller, the state agency working with Cary-based software company SAS on the project. Basnight said getting it funded will be a top priority.

Perdue wants to see if she can use federal stimulus funds, or other federal funds that get funneled through the Governor's Crime Commission, to pay for the program.

"It's absolutely inexcusable that one branch of law enforcement doesn't know what's happening in another branch," Perdue said. "It's really dangerous."

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

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