Durham News: Sports

Durham doing better with probation, but state budget a step back

County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, who also heads the Durham Crime Cabinet, said she is very pleased with improvements at the local probation office.

“We have seen steady progress,” Reckhow said, since 2008, when two men supervised by overburdened probation staff in Durham and Wake counties murdered UNC Student Body President Eve Carson; one was also charged in the murder of Duke graduate student Abhijit Mahato.

That glaring failure of the probation system “raised the issue, and the Durham Crime Cabinet really pushed actively for more resources,” Reckhow said.

The killings also led to a drive for reforming the state’s probation system, and to the 2011 Justice Reinvestment Act that called for, among other reforms, additional probation officers. But money to pay those new probation officers is notably absent from the 2012-13 budget currently before the N.C. General Assembly (see Factbox).

Tony Taylor, the Community Corrections manager who supervises probation officers in Judicial District 14 – Durham, Orange and Chatham counties – said he currently has seven vacancies. That is up from two in early May, when he gave a status report to the Durham Crime Cabinet.

“We’ve had a few people leave us here recently,” he said last week, but Taylor said he does have money to fill those positions and is interviewing candidates.

Fully staffed, Taylor would have 73 probation officers, 57 for Durham County. With all seven vacancies in Durham, the remaining 50 people are handling 3,272 offenders, or an average of 65.4 each. The Justice Reinvestment Act recommends 60 as the maximum per-officer caseload and, with all 57 jobs filled the Durham caseload would be 57.4.

The 3,272 cases do not include 201 “absconders” – offenders on probation who are evading supervision – but that number shows improvement in Durham’s probation office.

The 201 represent 5.7 percent of the county’s total 3,473 cases; in years past, Reckhow said, absconders were as high as 20 percent. One of those years was 2008.

“I think there’s been an improvement,” said City Councilman Eugene Brown. “One reason for that is there was so much room for improvement.”

In the wake of the Mahato and Carson murders, Reckhow and Brown among others lobbied then-Gov.-elect Bev Perdue to overhaul the state’s probation system. Within days of Perdue’s taking office, the state chief and the manager of a 21-county area including Durham were out of their jobs.

Still, when Taylor was named Community Corrections manager in April 2011, the job had been vacant for six months. State Community Corrections Director Tim Moose said it went unfilled due to a lack of money.

With legislators so far balking at funding the probation jobs their own Justice Reinvestment Act said North Carolina needed, Reckhow said Durham citizens and officials need to lobby legislators to reconsider.

“I hope they follow through, or we’re going to be going backward,” she said.

“It’s just absolutely pathetic,” said Brown. “They’re putting our citizens in harm’s way.

“It’s what I call the politics of gesture,” he said. “Pass legislation that says you’re going to do something and then pull the rug out from under everybody concerned.”