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Too many offenders strain ranks of probation officers in Rowan

By Shavonne Potts
Salisbury PostBefore a judge put him on probation, Joey Dickerson says he didn’t care if he lived or died.
Today, Dickerson says he’s sober and holding down a job, and he credits probation with saving his life.
But Dickerson may be the exception. Local probation officials and Rowan’s chief prosecutor say too many other people thumb their noses at the conditions judges order them to live by. They make probation officers ó or bail bondsmen ó haul them back into court.
And state statistics show Rowan County’s probation officers already have to keep track of too many offenders ó more than the state average.
Rowan County District Attorney Bill Kenerly says he has seen the problem explode.
When he began practicing law in 1974, Rowan had three probation officers. Now, the county has close to 30.
“I think we are fortunate to have good probation officers and supervisors who do such a good job. The problem is, there is too much work and not enough people,” he said.
Questions after deaths
The murders of Duke University graduate student Abhijit Mahato and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill senior Eve Carson have pushed N.C. officials to examine the state’s probation system.
An internal investigation revealed the two men accused of killing Carson ó Demario James Atwater and Laurence Alvin Lovette ó were on probation and had violated their probation orders at the time of the Chapel Hill student’s death. But overloaded probation officers had not tried for a year to even find Atwater.
State and local officials say the problem is relatively simple: too few probation officers to watch too many felons.
Probation officers generally handle two types of offenders:
– “Intensive” cases involving people with criminal histories who committed more serious crimes.
– “Low risk” cases involving people with little or no criminal history and less serious crimes.
In Rowan:
– Senior probation officers carry a caseload 40 percent higher than the state recommends.
Seventeen senior probation officers supervise an average of 84 cases each, according to Rose Cox, who oversees field operations in Rowan County for the Division of Community Corrections. The state recommends a caseload goal of 60 offenders to each senior probation officer.
Cox is currently trying to hire two additional senior probation officers, which would reduce the disparity.
– For the less serious probation cases, the state recommends a caseload of 110 cases per officer.
Rowan’s average caseload for the less-experienced officers is 135, or 23 percent higher than the state goal.
But a shuffle in numbers actually makes the problem seem less serious.
Until this year, the state recommended a caseload of 90 less-serious offenders to one officer. By that guideline, Rowan’s probation officers carried a load 50 percent higher than recommended.
But this year, the Division of Community Corrections increased the statutory caseload goal from 90 to 110, instantly adding 20 cases to every officer’s average.
Rowan currently has 11 of the entry-level probation officers, and Cox is looking to fill one vacancy. Once she fills that position, the average number of cases will drop to 123, still above the state average.
Purse strings
The N.C. General Assembly sets the number of probation officers. Robert Guy, director of the Division of Community Corrections, said budget cuts in recent years required his agency to increase the average case load for officers supervising less serious offenders to 110.
In mid-May, in response to the students’ murders at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke, Gov. Mike Easley proposed boosting spending for the probation system $4 million. A House budget committee has trimmed that increase to $3 million.
Guy said he’s not sure how the new money will be spent. He’s waiting on a report from a national panel that is examining the N.C. probation system.
Guy says the solution is not just more officers but also a better system for tracking offenders, better pay for probation officers who often leave for better pay and better supervision. (See article in Monday’s Post.)When one county’s officers get overloaded with cases, the state probation office will try to transfer probation officers from a county that’s not as stressed, Cox explained.
In past two years, Cox has lost some “good, quality employees.” Six people transferred to be closer to home. She’s had seven new hires in the past four months. New hires are rare.
“I can see the struggles that I have in a small county. Bigger urban counties probably have more problems with recruitment,” Cox said.
While counties are trying to hire new probation officers, the number of supervised offenders continues to increase.
In 2002-03, Cox’s department supervised 2,329 people in Rowan County. That number has steadily climbed ó to 2,733 in 2006-07.
Already this year, Rowan’s supervised probation role has swelled to 3,025.
“As the population and economy grows, I anticipate the number of probationers to continue to grow,” Cox said. “The clerks, DA’s Office, the jail ó we all are working hard.”
District Attorney Kenerly places most of the blame on the Structured Sentencing Act of 1994. The state law was designed to keep violent criminals in prison longer, but it also increased the number of people on probation.
According to the Department of Correction, people on probation statewide increased from 50,000 to 60,000 between 1995 and 1997.
Nearly 10 years later, that number has almost doubled ó to 116,516.
Structured sentencing requires probationary sentences for some offenders, Kenerly said, and “It’s placing more people on probation.”
Breaking probation
And many of those people are violating probation ó creating an additional problem.
“I calculate that we spend 20 percent of Superior Court time dealing with probation violations,” Kenerly said. “Right now, we spend Friday dealing with those probation violations.
“We are dealing with cases we’ve already handled one time. It’s time we could be spending on new cases.
“… To my knowledge every office in the state has more work than they can do. Every prosecutor I talk to has the same complaint.”
Currently, 78 people are scheduled to appear in Superior Court in the next three weeks on probation violations.
Of those 78, a judge heard 38 cases on Thursday and will hear 40 more June 6.
Of those 78, 14 people are currently in jail. A judge has issued an order for arrest for 10 people who did not previously show up for court.
“This is representative of what would be on a calendar for a normal two-week term,” Kenerly said.
Kenerly said he doesn’t have much confidence that any new programs will be much help.
“There’s certainly a lot talk of why people become repeat offenders. I don’t pretend to know the answer. But to successfully complete probation, it comes down to: don’t get arrested for another crime and don’t do drugs,” he said.
Joey Dickerson would probably say it’s not quite that simple. After he was convicted of driving while impaired, he credits a wilderness camp with helping him get drugs out of his system and his probation officer with keeping him focused.
The 24-year-old, who has been on probation for about four years, submits to random drug tests and meets with his probation officer once a month. At first, he was on intensive probation, which meant he met with a probation officer once a week. He must also maintain a job and continue to pay his fines. He shows his probation officer his pay stubs.
Dickerson said he doesn’t see being on probation as a hardship.
“It really helps me make sure I do what I’m supposed to do. It’s really more of a security blanket,” he said.
Contact Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253 or spotts@salisburypost.com.

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