Easley proposes to strengthen the probation system

RALEIGH Officials acknowledge both Laurence Lovette, Jr. and DeMario Atwater fell through cracks in the system. Proposals in Gov. Mike Easley's eighth and final budget seek to strengthen the probation system, and at first glance, his proposals are getting warm reception from influential legislators.

"We're gonna give D.O.C. whatever they need," Easley said bluntly at a Monday morning news conference where he unveiled his $21.5 billion budget. Included in the section dealing with public safety is $2.2 million to hire additional Chief Probation/Parole Officers. Those chief officers are crucial -- and desperately needed.

"One of the things we've heard from our field offices is those officers on the street need more support, more guidance, more mentoring, more direct supervision of what they're doing to make sure cases aren't slipping through the cracks," said Department of Correction spokesperson Keith Acree.

The budgeted money would pay for 21 new chief officers to be hired primarily in Wake, Durham and Mecklenburg counties. Currently, chief officers in those counties supervise about 10 probation officers and about 800 probation cases. Adding 21 chief officers would reduce those figures, to about 6 probation officers each and caseloads of under 500.

"The level of supervision is probably not what it should be, and it looks like (Easley's) taking a fairly aggressive step to do something about that," said Sen. Majority Leader Tony Rand.

Also included in the 2008-2009 budget proposal is an additional $1.8 million that would go into a reserve fund for "offender supervision". It's unclear exactly how such money would be spent, but budget documents suggest it could be used for regular audits of the probation system and for more employee training.

One needed element not specifically funded in the proposal is technology for the probation system.

"We're looking at systems that would help us communicate better with law enforcement, share information between the probation system, between officers, so we know when one of our offenders is arrested and faces new charges," Acree said. "So when law officers stop someone on the side of the road, they know whether that person's on probation or not."

Easley said technological solutions may be added to the bottom line by the time the budget is adopted.

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