Local News

Probation official: More resources needed

Posted December 22, 2008 6:45 p.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2009 5:10 p.m. EDT

— The head of the state's probation system says more resources are needed to help the troubled program, which has been under scrutiny for oversights in the cases of offenders' charged in a number of high-profile criminal cases this year.

"It's a very difficult business that we're in," said Robert Guy, director of the state Department of Correction's Division of Community Corrections. "The key to it are the people in it."

His officers failed to properly track Laurence Alvin Lovette Jr., 18, and Demario James Atwater, 22 – two suspects charged with first-degree murder in the March shooting death of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill senior Eve Carson, found dead on a residential street near the campus.

Lovette is also charged in the January shooting death Duke University graduate student Abhijit Mahato, who was found dead in his off-campus apartment.

Although he admits his department made mistakes in overlooking Atwater and Lovette, Guy says the probation system is complex and that other factors played a role in their being out of jail.

The work probation officers do is limited, in part, by resources – funding and staffing needs. Judges' decisions in courts, where offenders are sentenced, and state laws, which shield juvenile criminal records, are also factors that play into the broken system, Guy says.

"Despite what everybody may read, we have the most dedicated public servants in the business," Guy said. "They are underpaid, and they're overworked, but they do a good job."

He says more resources – judges, district attorneys and probation officers – are needed to slow down what he calls a "fast-track" court system in the state.

"The judges, the DAs are forced to move everybody through the calendar quickly. We don't slow down and do sentencing like other states do," he said. "(We need to) get more information at sentencing times, so we can make these true sentences, as far as the risk the offender really poses."

Because the information isn't public and easy to access, juvenile-records laws, Guy says, it can make it difficult to properly sentence offenders. (Should juvenile records be public?)

For example, Guy says, a judge could sentence an offender who is 17 years old to probation for a low-level crime, not knowing that the suspect had a history of severe criminal activity from ages 13 to 16.

"Mr. Lovette is a prime example," Guy said. "He had a violent history as a juvenile, and he came into the adult system as a first-time offender."

Since problems came to light in the wake of Mahato's and Carson's slayings, the state has allocated $2.5 million for new jobs to alleviate understaffing.

All probation officers will also be required to use a new $75,000 Web-based information system that allows them to better track their caseloads.

But Guy says more people are key to being effective in the community.

"Technology is great, but I've got to have resources, and I've got to pay the people to keep them," he said, adding that he has lost some of his best probation officers to law enforcement positions.

"I've got some good ones left behind," he said. "But if we don't do something about the pay, it's going to be hard to maintain the quality we need to maintain to be effective in the community."