Local News

Changes under way for Wake's probation system

Posted August 11, 2008 6:00 p.m. EDT
Updated August 12, 2008 11:46 a.m. EDT

— On the street, it is business as usual for Wake County probation officers Jennifer MacNeil and Scott Payne.

MacNeil and Payne usually spend their days out of the office meeting with people serving sentences on the outside of a prison or jail.

Caseloads for each officer at the Wake County probation office can vary from 20 files to more than 100, depending on the type of crimes each officer manages.

Their caseloads include people like Billy Champion, who’s at the beginning of six months of house arrest for attempted larceny. In and out of jail before, he says that staying out of trouble has been a struggle.

“I almost wish I’d just went and done my time, anyway,” he said while being fitted for an electronic ankle bracelet. “But we’ll see how it goes.”

Meanwhile, off the streets and behind the scenes, veteran managers of the state’s probation system have been brought in to fix problems.

Serious oversights were exposed in the probation offices in Wake and Durham counties following the March arrests of Demario James Atwater, 22, and Laurence Alvin Lovette Jr., 17, both whom are charged with first-degree murder in the March 5 shooting death of Eve Marie Carson, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill senior.

Lovette, upon his arrest in March, was also charged with murder in the Jan. 18 shooting death of Duke University graduate student Abhijit Mahato.

Both men had been charged with other crimes while on probation, but neither was ever jailed for violating the conditions of probation.

An internal investigation by the state’s Division of Community Corrections found that as many as 10 staff members touched Atwater's case file and did not address red flags with it. Probation officers also lost contact with him for more than a year.

Lovette's probation officer was handling 127 cases, although she had not completed basic training, and never met with him. She had also been kept on duty although she was facing a DWI charge.

The probation officers handling those cases have since resigned, and top managers in the Wake and Durham offices have retired or been reassigned.

“We’ve felt like we’ve made a big difference,” said Vernon Bryant, acting assistant judicial district manager for the Wake Office.

Over the past four months, the Wake team of senior officials has worked to balance caseloads and reorganize the department.

"I still think that it's a work in progress," Bryant said, "but I think that we have made tremendous progress, and I feel like with all of us working together — all the employees in Wake County — we can make a difference."

Recently, the state launched a new computer program that alerts probation officers across North Carolina if someone they manage is arrested in Wake, Orange, Johnston, Chatham, Durham or Granville counties. The plan is to have the alert system eventually pick up arrests elsewhere in the state.

And earlier this year, a team of four from the National Institute of Corrections, a federal agency, also reviewed employee training and practices, including case management and staffing levels, in the state's major urban areas.

Under the current system, there is no automatic notification. Probation officers have to go to physically check court records, and that can mean delays in contacting offenders.

Despite the caseloads and, most recently, the scrutiny of how the Wake probation office operates, both MacNeil and Payne say they love their jobs.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything else,” MacNeil said.

For them, their focus is turning lives around.