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Editorial: Fatal flaws in probation

When the News & Observer of Raleigh did an in-depth series of articles on North Carolina’s probation system, it discovered some numbers that are downright scary.
In the past seven years, 580 offenders have committed homicide while on probation. That accounts for about 17 percent of the total N.C. homicides in that period.
Equally startling: Nearly 14,000 probationers (out of 114,000 total) can’t be located, which means authorities don’t know whether they’re dead, alive, living in another state ó or perhaps lying low under an assumed name down the street from you.
Problems in North Carolina’s probation system aren’t new. The system came under renewed scrutiny earlier this year, after the highly publicized slayings of UNC-Chapel Hill student body president Eve Carson and Duke graduate student Abhijit Mahato. The men accused in their killings had received scant attention from probation officers in Wake and Durham counties, but state officials initially said the cases of lax oversight were unusual and not as widespread as subsequent scrutiny indicates.
It’s easy to point to some of the well-known causes: The system, which falls under the Department of Correction, has been poorly managed. While many probation officers are diligent, conscientious and perform commendably under difficult circumstances, others don’t keep close tabs on their cases or don’t follow through when signs of trouble appear. That means the system sometimes fails to flag probationers who should be back in jail. But the probation officers themselves labor under staggering caseloads and carry heavy responsibilities for relatively low pay. It’s estimated that nearly 20 percent of probation officers, supervisors and administrators work second jobs. Failure to make full use of new tracking technologies also inhibits the system’s effectiveness.
These problems shouldn’t be viewed in isolation from other criminal justice issues. When a significant number of probationers commit serious violations, it raises questions about whether some of them should have been placed on probation in the first place. The problem also has a direct relation to our crowded prisons and jails, as well as to caseloads and staffing in prosecutors’ offices and local courtrooms ó all of which inevitably have an impact on probation practices and decisions.
State officials have promised to address some of the issues, including more vigorous efforts to beef up the ranks of probation officers. That would relieve some of the caseload pressure and reduce the turnover rate. Making better use of existing monitoring systems also would help. The state’s budget shortfall may make it difficult to bolster probation staffs ó just as it has made it difficult to expand prisons, courts and prosecutor’s offices ó but that shouldn’t stop efforts to improve oversight and promote greater accountability at all levels.

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