Not enough Correction

Published 3:55 am Saturday, October 11, 2008

By Staff
Nine months ago, before the housing bubble burst and most people had ever heard of Sarah Palin, people in the Triangle were shocked when UNC-CH student-body president Eve Carson and Duke graduate student Abajhit Mahato were murdered.
Media reports revealed that the suspects in both murders were on probation at the time and one of them should have been in jail for violation of his parole. Later stories revealed widespread problems in the probation and parole system, caseloads for officers that reached 120 in some urban areas, high staff turnover, low salaries and startlingly inadequate technology.
Many people leaving prison were falling through the cracks, not just the two men charged in the high-profile murders. It seemed like every state official promised to do something about it. N.C. Department of Correction officials conducted investigations, a federal audit was begun, and legislative leaders pledged more resources for the probation and parole system.
The final budget passed by the General Assembly in July set aside $2.5 million to address the problems, and cited a pending a report on the system from the National Institute of Corrections as justification for not allocating more money.
The institute was familiar with North Carolina. It was hired in 2004 to look at the probation system and its finings then included dangerously high caseloads, low pay for officers, high turnover and outdated technology. Sounds like a familiar list.
Corrections officials this week presented their plan to spend the $2.5 million to a legislative committee. It includes hiring 20 more probation officers and six more supervisors, new radios for Durham County, more training and a staffing study.
That all sounds reasonable enough, but hardly an adequate response to evidence that the system is dramatically underfunded and needs a major overhaul.
Twenty more officers will help but the state now supervises roughly 130,000 offenders in probation, parole, or other programs after they are released from prison. Adding 20 more won’t drop caseloads much.
Plans for the $2.5 million do not include addressing staff turnover or the low salaries that make it difficult to keep people on the job. Corrections officials point out that high vacancy rates mean even higher caseloads for officers currently employed.
There are still technology problems in many counties, with information kept separately by the courts and law enforcement agencies. The $2.5 million won’t do anything for that problem either.
One news account of this week’s legislative meeting quoted lawmakers as frustrated by the “lack of concrete solutions” to problems in the probation and parole system. They have a point, but there’s more to it than that.
You can’t have enough concrete solutions unless lawmakers are willing to fund them. The system needs new technology, more officers and high salaries for starters. That was true in 2004 and it is true in 2008.
That might seem unrealistic in a year when revenues are below projections and lawmakers are facing a budget shortfall next session that could reach $2 billion. But not if it is a priority.
The system that supervises offenders was in a crisis in January. That was one tragic lesson from the murders of Eve Carson and Abajhit Mahato. It seems to have many of the same problems today. Lawmakers will have another chance to take that lesson seriously in the 2009 session or just let more people fall through the cracks.