Changes in state law target repeat offenders

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 26, 2012

By Shavonne Potts
SALISBURY — Jeffrey and Carolyn Okula’s son, Thomas, still makes sure the doors and windows in the family’s home are locked each night before bed.
The couple were remodeling their Bostian Road home in 2008 when it was broken into by a neighbor on three different occasions.
Authorities determined that Brian Keith Ritchie, 34, had gone into the Okulas’ shed and house. In March, he was convicted of being a habitual felon.
Ritchie is serving up to 11 years in prison and has been ordered to complete a drug and alcohol treatment program.
But he was convicted before the state’s enactment of the Justice Reinvestment Act. Had that law been in effect when Ritchie committed the crimes, he could’ve received more focused attention on rehabilitation upon his release.
The act, which was signed into law in June 2011, established a habitual breaking and entering status offense and made other changes to the North Carolina criminal justice system, the first major changes since Structured Sentencing in 1994.
Shifting focus
The law reduces state spending on prisons. Legislators said that money could be invested into successful programs that focus on treatment and rehabilitation and in turn reduce the rate of repeat offenders.
The law also makes changes to the prison and probation systems and the court system, creates a statewide confinement program and establishes a new habitual breaking and entering felony offense.
The law applies to offenses committed on or after Dec. 1, 2011, so Ritchie won’t be affected by the changes.
The Okulas recalled having their house broken into by someone they trusted and how their son had to learn a life lesson at a young age.
“It was awful. We were working on our house and he was acting as if he was a ‘Good Samaritan,’ ” Carolyn Okula said.
Ritchie told the Okulas — who weren’t living in the house while remodeling it — he’d seen cars in their yard, and he seemed like a concerned neighbor.
Carolyn and her husband felt as if someone was looking out for the property, but little did they know he was stealing from them when they weren’t home.
“We worked hard and he took advantage of the fact that we were neighbors,” Carolyn said.
Many of Jeffrey’s tools were taken, along with the children’s toys, including go-karts that were chained together. Go-kart tracks led Jeffrey right to Ritchie’s home across the street.
Thomas, who was 3 at the time, was terrified to go to sleep, and only recently has he become comfortable playing outdoors again.
Jeffrey is still frustrated and angry, but most of all he felt his son’s sense of security had been taken.
“It was a young age to discover that about people,” Jeffrey said.
Jeffrey said the system failed his family.
But he is grateful to Detective Carl Dangerfield with the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office for working on the case.
The Okulas are glad at least for their son’s peace of mind that Ritchie is behind bars.
Constant evaluation
In 2011, the General Assembly directed the Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission and the Division of Adult Correction to evaluate on an ongoing basis the implementation of the new law.
Rowan Chief District Court Judge Charlie Brown is chairman of the Justice Reinvestment Implementation Report Subcommittee.
The subcommittee collects and compiles data from affected agencies and programs then reviews and reports any recommendations to the commission. The subcommittee has met three times, most recently on April 13.
Reinvestment is “literally and figuratively the centerpiece” of the act, Brown said.
“Reinvestment in programs such as substance abuse treatment and cognitive behavioral interventions, reinvestment in community corrections to enable intensive supervision of the highest risk offenders and reinvestment in post-release supervision for programs and adequate monitoring of the inmates that are returning to our community upon their release from prison,” he said.
There is no data available yet to analyze the impact of the new law.
As cases go through the court system, there will be ways to determine the effect the law will have on the prison and probation system as well as on the rate of repeat offenders.
According to a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, half the people released from state prisons will be re-arrested within three years.
Lawmakers found that improved community supervision is critical to address and reduce that rate, known as recidivism. With the new law, state lawmakers have placed emphasis on post-release supervision.
More flexibility
Probation officers currently spend much of their time on people who’ve been convicted of low-level misdemeanors who are not likely to re-offend, said Catherine Combs, manager of Adult Probation in Rowan and Cabarrus counties.
Now officers look at an offender’s risk to re-offend and complete an assessment based on evidence-based practices.
“Certain crimes and certain behaviors will predict your risk of re-offending or your risk to the community,” Combs said.
The new law gives probation officers a little more flexibility in their response to offenders.
“More than 85 percent of people released and returned to the community are not supervised,” Combs said.
Probation officers have the authority to impose sanctions including electronic house arrest, referrals to drug treatment or even brief stints in jail regardless of the probation level for offenders who violate, all without having to go through the courts for permission.
“Probation officers didn’t have a method to swiftly respond to violations,” Combs said.
Before the Justice Reinvestment Act, offenders who violated probation would appear before a judge who could choose either to modify the probation or revoke probation and send the offender to prison.
Those short stints in jail, or quick dips, can be up to six days per month for two to three days at a time and allow an offender the opportunity to remain on probation longer.
Essentially, a person must violate probation three times before going to prison for a substantial amount of time.
A judge can automatically revoke probation if an offender commits a new crime or absconds by avoiding the officer or making his whereabouts unknown to the officer.
The new law also sets a caseload goal of 60 for supervising high-risk and high-need probations.
Combs said she likes the new system because it puts resources where they’re needed.
Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.