State’s new probation law goes unfunded

cjarvis@newsobserver.com June 19, 2012 

  • Pending probation logjam • The Justice Reinvestment Act is projected to put 15,000 new offenders under supervision by 2013 once they’re released from prison. That happens because those convicted of less serious felonies will now be supervised. Also, those who violate the terms of their probation will be supervised after serving maximum 90-day sentences instead of being returned to prison. • As of Dec. 1, 2011, the most serious offenders are on longer post-release supervision of 12 months; lower-level felons are supervised for nine months. • Probation officers have more authority. For example, they can require probationers to comply with more conditions than what judges impose. A probationer’s risk of re-offending would determine how closely he or she is monitored.

Last year the governor and state lawmakers from both parties came together for the first sweeping revision of sentencing laws in North Carolina in nearly two decades, aimed at keeping closer tabs on ex-convicts.

The theory behind the Justice Reinvestment Act was that more intensive supervision of offenders who had been released into the community would prevent them from returning to prison. Eventually, that approach was supposed to save the state the cost of building more prisons, and make everyone safer.

But for all the fanfare about the cutting-edge crime-fighting plan, lawmakers left out one key ingredient: money to pay for probation officers to supervise the newly released prisoners. No funding has been set aside in either the initial House or Senate versions of the budget.

Improving probation officers’ caseloads was one of the reforms that followed the 2008 slaying of UNC-Chapel Hill student body president Eve Carson by two men who were on probation but poorly monitored. Yet improvement since has been slow, and the few gains in easing caseloads could suffer a serious setback if money isn’t found.

An estimated 15,000 offenders are expected to become the responsibility of state probation officers by next year. The state Department of Public Safety says it needs 249 new positions to handle that job, at a cost of about $13 million.

The Justice Reinvestment Act recommends each probation officer handle no more than 60 offenders. Currently, the average is 80 offenders for each officer. The statewide average caseload in 2008 was 68.

Probation officers are handling about 14 percent of the convicted felons released from prison. Under the new law, which took effect Dec. 1, they are responsible for all felons for at least nine months.

Without more probation officers, caseloads could soar.

The state Department of Public Safety says it made it clear to the Legislature last year that a substantial increase in resources for community supervision would be required. Its officials are working closely with legislative leaders in hopes of finding the money, a spokeswoman says.

Doug Holbrook, an analyst with the state Department of Public Safety, told a Senate budget subcommittee earlier this month that funding was “a desperate need for our department.”

Finding the money

Legislative budget-writers last week gave the department the flexibility to reclassify vacant positions in order to create new probation officer slots. Rep. Leo Daughtry, a Republican from Smithfield who is one of the chairmen of the justice and public safety appropriations subcommittee, acknowledges that’s not enough.

“They’re going to need some more,” Daughtry said Tuesday. “We’re trying to find a way to get them the money to make it work. … If I had the money I would give it to them.”

The House subcommittees were given marching orders by Republican leaders requiring budget cuts. Daughtry said he thought it might take about a year to figure out what the needs are and then where to find the money.

Last year, Rep. Alice Bordsen, a Democrat from Alamance County, told fellow lawmakers she supported the concept behind the Justice Reinvestment Act but didn’t understand how the funding was supposed to work.

“It’s a big worry,” Bordsen said Tuesday. “Somewhere you have to make that initial investment of a chunk of money that is supposed to pay back in spades. We aren’t really sure how this new system that’s going to require more intensive probation services is going to work.”

David Guice, a retired parole and probation officer, shepherded the new law last year when he was a Republican representative from Transylvania County. He now heads the Department of Public Safety division that oversees probation and parole.

Guice said last year that the law would allow the state to avoid spending $267 million to build and operate new prisons for a projected increase in inmates by 2017. The state would save another $293 million by diverting prisoners into post-release supervision, he said.

A yearlong study found that in 2009 more than half of new prison admissions were for probation violations, mostly minor technical violations. It also found that 85 percent of those released from prison return to their communities unsupervised.

Gov. Bev Perdue and lawmakers from both parties announced they would try this new approach, to “re-invest” savings into community treatment programs and closer supervision. But the funding to get it up and running has never been clear. Legislative analysts last year reported it was impossible to come up with a reliable cost estimate.

What funds pay for

Legislators began setting aside money last year for the Justice Reinvestment Act by closing four minimum-security prisons and eliminating 203 jobs, cutting 18 jobs at a fifth prison and tapping money people pay for court costs. The law requires more than just funding for probation officers, though: it also needs treatment programs and the costs of housing some misdemeanor prisoners in county jails, for example.

The current House budget proposal expands the state Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission from three to four members, and creates three new positions for case analysts, who provide staff support for the commission. The proposed budget also gives commissioners a raise: Chairman Tony Rand, a former longtime state senator, would make $101,235, and the other commissioners, whose positions are part time, would each make $46,732. It also sets aside $5 million for treatment programs.

For her part, Perdue’s recommended budget gave the Department of Public Safety just what it wants: more than $12 million, which includes 172 probation officers, 53 judicial services officers and 24 Parole Commission employees.

A spokesman for the department said Tuesday it hasn’t determined what it will do if it has to rely on the current budget plan put forth by legislators and find those jobs in vacant positions. That could require drawing on vacancies in the prisons, juvenile justice and law enforcement divisions.

Jarvis: 919-829-4576

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