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Law gives officers more reach

Probation missteps prompted the push for reforms
BY SARAH OVASKA AND JOSEPH NEFF, News & Observer, July 31, 2009
The new law also will allow police to conduct warrantless searches of probationers and their vehicles if police have reasonable suspicion the offender has a weapon or is engaged in criminal activity. The bill also makes it clear that any probation officer can search any probationer, his vehicle and his home.
RALEIGH -- Police and probation officers had their powers expanded Thursday with a new law that responds to problems discovered in the state's probation system after the killings of two Triangle university students.

The reforms signed into law by Gov. Beverly Perdue will allow probation officers to access portions of a probationer's juvenile record, previously considered off-limits because of confidentiality concerns. Police, not just probation officers, will also be able to search offenders when they suspect criminal wrongdoing without needing a judge to sign off on a warrant.

At a news conference in front of the Raleigh Police Department, Perdue called the reforms a "critical first step" toward fixing the system assigned to supervise 114,000 people on probation and parole.

But the probation department still has serious stress, primarily from a growing list of vacant positions. In December, the department had 118 vacancies among probation officers; today, the number has swelled to 145.

Correction spokesman Keith Acree said the department is delaying filling lower-level positions slated for an increase in pay and responsibility. The department needs additional funding in this year's budget, he said.

And the General Assembly has yet to approve more money for more officers. Perdue pressed legislators to find room for $24.2 million in a tight budget to pay for 175 new officers and raises for the 1,048 existing officers over the next two years.

The Senate has gone along with part of her plan, adding in its budget proposal 129 probation officers and supervisors and giving most probation officers a bump in salary. But a House version didn't include money for new positions. The fate of Perdue's proposal isn't clear; the House and Senate are tussling over their final budget bill, which could emerge as early as next week.

Two killings drew attention

The push for changes in the probation system came from two catalysts: the deaths of two Triangle university students early in 2008, and reporting in The News & Observer that culminated in a three-part series in December.

The N&O series detailed a probation system in crisis.

A high number of vacancies forced probation officers to carry dangerously heavy caseloads, resulting in botched oversight of many cases and 13,000 missing offenders. Since 2,000, 580 probationers had killed while under state supervision.

The reporting followed the high-profile deaths of UNC student body president Eve Carson and Duke graduate student Abhijit Mahato. Two of the defendants in those cases were on probation and had received scant attention from the Wake and Durham probation offices.

The probation division's top managers -- including director Robert Guy -- have been replaced, and Perdue has called for re-examining how the department monitors offenders.

Laurence Lovette, a teen charged with first-degree murder in the Carson and Mahato cases, had a record of serious crimes in the juvenile system. Prosecutors in adult court did not take that record into account when arranging a plea for one of his first offenses in the adult system.

The new legislation would allow probation officers access to confidential juvenile records in situations where the crime committed would equate to a felony in the adult system.

Warrantless searches

The new law will also will allow police to conduct warrantless searches of probationers and their vehicles if police have reasonable suspicion the offender has a weapon or is engaged in criminal activity. The bill also makes it clear that any probation officer can search any probationer, his vehicle and his home.

The changes came in response to the experience of Mark Hornsby, a Harnett County probation officer disciplined for conducting a search in Harnett County of a convicted drug dealer on probation in Sampson County. Before that, Hornsby had been lauded for years for his success in seizing guns and drugs from probationers on his watch.

Hornsby said that his supervisors recently changed the negative evaluations to outstanding.

"They took away all my bad write-ups," Hornsby said. "I'm free to do my job again."

The department has made significant progress in locating missing probationers who have hidden from supervision.

In July 2008, probation officers couldn't locate 14,770 offenders. On Thursday, that number was down to 12,143.

Correction Secretary Alvin Keller credited much of that success to a ramped-up database that allows police officers to see if a person is wanted for avoiding supervision.

"It helps the probation officer spend less time on paperwork," Keller said. "It's a process that's ongoing."

Various law enforcement officers from the state Highway Patrol and Raleigh Police Department were at the bill signing to demonstrate an enhanced database that allows police officers to instantly check to see if a person is on probation and also to pull up an individual's driver license photographs.

Correction officials acknowledged that the fix could have been made years ago, but no one in the criminal justice system pushed to do it.

The fix merged Department of Correction files with existing systems that law enforcement officers use to see if individuals have active warrants.

The N.C. Department of Justice used several grants to pay for upgrades on their end, while the correction department paid $20,000

"It's ridiculous in my mind that we weren't already doing it," Perdue said.

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