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Editorial: Probation woes persist

Four years ago, a study of the state’s probation and parole system found a number of serious problems needing attention, including underpaid officers, heavy caseloads and high turnover.
The 2004 study by the National Institute of Corrections was supposed to provide a blueprint for strengthening and modernizing the state’s Division of Community Corrections, but many of the problems it highlighted persist, and they aren’t necessarily limited to large urban counties. A two-part Salistury Post series, which concluded Monday, showed that local probation officers share the same frustrations as those in more urban areas such as Charlotte or Raleigh, including high caseloads, high turnover rates among officers and technological difficulties that can slow communication and information sharing with police agencies.
Of course, it’s no shock to learn that yet another part of our corrections system suffers from being chronically understaffed and overstressed. By now, the public is at risk of growing numb to accounts of overflowing prisons, overbooked court dockets and back-breaking caseloads. The probation and parole system’s difficulties are part and parcel of the same set of factors plaguing judges, prosecutors and law enforcement agencies across the state. North Carolina’s growing population has brought an increase in crime, while our jails and court systems haven’t been able to keep pace. Meanwhile, in an attempt to take some of the pressure off prison facilities, state law was revised in the mid-1990s to increase the number of people on probation. Theoretically, at least, structured sentencing was supposed to accomplish two things ó create more room in prison for the most dangerous offenders while allowing lower-level criminals to return home and get their lives back in order. In reality, however, it hasn’t worked out that way. Many probationers violate the terms of their release, and dangerous offenders can fall through the cracks, as we saw recently with the high profile murders of two college students, Eve Carson and Abhijit Muhato, whose slayings were linked to two men supposedly under the probation system’s watch.
Now, there’s a renewed focus on addressing issues in the Division of Community Corrections, which handles probation, parole and other post-conviction programs. In the wake of the Carson-Muhato slayings, state officials have vowed to repair the system. Community Corrections boss Robert Guy says his agency has tightened adherence to existing policies, while also targeting areas such as pay, technology and turnover rates for improvement. In addition, he has requested an outside review to assess procedures and recommend improvements. Let’s hope the follow-through at the legislative level is stronger than what occurred after the previous assessment four years ago. The probation and parole system is a key part of the corrections system, both in helping to protect the public and in providing structure and support for former inmates who make a sincere effort to reform. Those who monitor offenders on probation or parole already have a tough, gritty job, without the additional burdens of low pay and crushing caseloads.

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