State budget cuts putting extra burden on those keeping watch of those on probation
By Frank DeLoache
State budget cuts have dramatically increased caseloads for probation officers.
The same cuts mean supervisors have too many officers assigned to them and too little time to review cases.
And despite the pressures, starting probation officers make some of the lowest starting pay in state government for positions requiring a college degree.
Those are three of the major problems N.C. lawmakers must address to fix problems with the state’s probation system, the director of that system said last week.
Yet, Robert Guy, head of the Division of Community Corrections, believes the state’s system is basically sound and he is confident in the job probation officers are doing in Rowan and all but a few other counties in the state.
With the murders of two college students at Research Triangle universities earlier this year, Guy said he was “really appalled” when he examined operations of probation offices in Raleigh and Durham.
“In those two counties, we did not do our job,” Guy said. “The chain of command did not do its job, not just the individual probation officer.”
Both suspects in the murders were on probation at the time, and Wake County probation officers didn’t contact one of the men for more than a year, even when he didn’t comply with his sentence.
Suspect Demario Atwater and his attorney told a judge after his arrest on the murder charges that Atwater didn’t even think he was on probation since no probation officers bothered to contact him.
Guy said has relieved probation managers in both counties for now, as he and a team from the National Institute of Corrections review the state’s system.
But he already knows the case points to a number of weaknesses in the system:
– Budget cuts in recent years have forced state officials to increase the caseload for all probation officers. For less serious offenders, the state raised the minimum caseload from 90 to 110 cases, a 22 percent increase, and the average caseload in Rowan is even higher right now ó 135.
– The same budget cuts have meant fewer supervisors to review files and spot mishandled cases or problems overlooked.
In the early ’90s when he became director, Guy said he recommended each line supervisor have no more than six probation officers. Today, that supervisor-to-officer ratio has grown to 10-, 12- and, in some cases, 15 officers to 1 supervisor.
Rose Cox, director of probation in Rowan, said two of her supervisors have 12 officers reporting to them and the third has 11.
– Poor pay has resulted in a high turnover rate ó and, thus, a lack of continuity ó among probation officers.
Starting probation officers make the lowest pay in state government for positions requiring a college degree, Guy said.
Starting probations officers make slightly more than $30,000 a year, less, than starting police officers in Charlotte or Raleigh, who don’t have to have a college degree, Guy said.
So probation officers often work a year or two and then take higher paying jobs with the federal government or a metropolitan police department, he said.
“We’re a great training ground, but we’ve got to stop that flood gate. Our officers put themselves at just as much risk as a police officer or SBI (State Bureau of Investigation) agent.”
Cox, the Rowan probation director, said almost a fourth ó 23.8 percent ó of her probation officers turned over in 2007, and so far this year, she’s struggling against 18.6 percent turnover.
The Raleigh News & Observer reported that after the university students’ murders this year, records showed Wake County probation officers first assigned to Atwater’s case in February 2005 left for other jobs, passing his file to other officers. As a result, more than a year passed without them even calling Atwater.
“I had like three probation officers, and they all left,” Atwater told a judge.
– Outdated technology prevents probation officers from communicating well with police departments.
Guy said the probation agency’s computer aren’t connected to police agencies. So probation officers often don’t know when police officers arrest someone on probation.
Gov. Mike Easley has asked the General Assembly to appropriate an additional $4 million to improve the probation system.
If lawmakers approve that much, Guy says he’s not sure how it will be spent. Technology and better salaries might prove more useful than just hiring more officers.
Guy and his staff are currently composing their own recommendations to his boss, the director of the Department of Correction, who will take that to Easley and lawmakers.
He’s also eager to hear from the panel of outside experts examining the system. He emphasizes he requested the panel’s assistance.
At the same time, he said and his staff are reviewing the work of probation offices around the state. They are doing a good job under difficult circumstances, he said, and he hasn’t found any other breakdowns on the scale of the Durham and Raleigh offices.
For one thing, he has reinforced an existing “serious crime policy” that he says he created 12 years ago. The rule requires Cox and her counterparts to review any case in which a person already on probation commits a serious crime ó and write a report for her supervisors to review.
“We ask serious questions ó ‘What could be have done differently? Was he employed? If not, why not? Was there a problem with case management?’ We take this seriously,” Guy said.
Even if the probation officer does his or her best, Guy wants to remind the public that people on probation “are not locked up.”
“Crimes do occur that we can’t prevent,” he said. “But we have to make sure we don’t have a breakdown in the system that let’s someone get by.
“I’m not going to tolerate that.”
Contact Frank DeLoache at 704-797-4245 or firstname.lastname@example.org.