State: Taxpayer money not spent on probationer rewards

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ABC11 investigates a program the rewards people on probation for good behavior

It can be as simple as a certificate for good behavior and a small recognition ceremony that includes cookies and punch. Or maybe it's a small gift certificate to Bojangles' and a clothing donation.

Whatever it is - and contrary to a tip from an angry ABC11 viewer - the state says no taxpayer money is spent on a rewards program for people on probation who exhibit good behavior.

Last year, several Department of Public Safety county community corrections centers adopted the MVP program. It stands for Most Valuable Probationer. Each month, probation officers nominate parolees who have exhibited good behavior. They've passed drug tests, showed up to appointments on time and paid their court-ordered fees. They could be serving probation from minor offenses, or they could be sex offenders or people on post-release for murder.

Last month, a spaghetti dinner was held to celebrate the monthly winner. Sometimes, the honorees receive hygiene products, canned foods, or clothing. The District 16 Judicial Director said it's employees and donators who support recognition ceremonies.

"It's not taxpayers' funds, okay?" said Debbie Brown. "We do this out of donations that we get and through fundraisers that we have."

"And if there's something that we need to buy to replenish the cabinets then we take it out of those funds," Brown added. "It's not from any state treasury or some budget item or anything like that. We're totally dependent on donations."

The proposal for the recognition and rewards program came out of Cumberland County two years ago, and has caught on across the state, although it's not practiced in every corrections center district. It's a part of a positive reinforcement-type paroling in an evidenced-based practice and justice reinvestment model.

"This is a model that is not unique to North Carolina," said Brown. "It's being used in many states across the country."

Brown noted positive reinforcement is just as important for community corrections centers to implement as zero-tolerance models.

"A lot of our offender population have had very hard times in life," Brown said." Simple things that we take for granted that we have a family network there to support us and encourage us to do the right thing, they have not had. Even a simple thank you, which is pretty basic to us, a lot of offenders have never heard that."

When asked if gift cards are handed out as a tipster noted, Brown said there may be a small gift certificate to a restaurant like Bojangles', but nothing too expensive.

"Not that I'm aware of," she said.

Brown also noted the MVP program is already proving successful in keeping offenders from becoming repeat offenders.

While the Department of Safety said there are no specific statistics tied to the MVP program, the positive-reinforcement model has rendered success over the past few years in North Carolina.

Probation revocations are down about 50 percent and prison returns are down 14 percent over the past few years, according to DPS spokesman, Keith Acree.

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On Thursday, Paul Webster was picked as the MVP out of the 3,000 parolees in District 16, which encompasses Hoke, Scotland, and Robeson Counties.

Webster, who works part time as an illusionist, said he was done serving six months of probation time for driving around with a couple of quarts of moonshine.
He did everything right during his probation, so he was recognized in a Hoke County ceremony.

"They had a few cupcakes there. We had a little bit of punch and everything and we got to talk," Webster said. "Different departments of different areas came together to congratulate me on getting my award, and it just felt fantastic."

"It made me very, very happy for somebody to notice that I had done something good," said Webster.

In an email to DPS officials about a recent ceremony in Carteret County, a chief probation officer said the ceremony held for four people on probation was a great morale booster.

The courtroom was packed with a grand jury, jurors from other trials, defendants, and families.

"They all seemed very happy and excited," the probation officer wrote.
"During a break, I had a lady wave me down, and told me her son was on probation and she hoped one day he could be up there getting a certificate," he continued.

Cumberland County resident Clyde Dangerfield said he wouldn't mind paying for a program like this to save taxpayer money going towards repeat offenders.

"'Cause it's the taxpayer's money that they have to be out doing they leg monitors and stuff like that," Dangerfield said." And some of the taxpayers don't mind paying it. I'm a disabled vet and I don't mind paying, you know my taxes, you know for them to get right and then go out and live a productive life."
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