Local News

GOP state legislators propose probation fixes

Posted February 10, 2009 4:02 a.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2009 5:12 p.m. EDT

— Two Republican state lawmakers Tuesday announced a plan that they say can help fix the state's troubled probation system.

Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, filed Senate Bill 123, which would allow any law enforcement officer to perform warrantless searches on probationers. It would also require probationers to submit to random drug tests.

"This is a way to address our growing crime problem, our growing criminal problem," Berger said.

Of the 117,779 people on probation or parole in the state, 60 percent have court-ordered warrantless searches and 68 percent have court-ordered drug testing, according to the North Carolina Department of Correction.

Approximately 14,000 are unaccounted for, including 942 in Wake County and 832 in Durham County.

That's why Berger and Stam say they also sent a letter to Gov. Bev Perdue asking that the state publish on the Internet a list of all probation absconders and their last known addresses.

"If we put on a Web site their pictures and last known address – there are 8 million people statewide who might know where some of them are," Stam said.

Perdue spokeswoman Chrissy Pearson said the governor welcomes all suggestions and that her office is looking forward to working with the General Assembly on the issue.

Sarah Preston, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said that people on probation or parole should expect less privacy. The organization's concern, however, is that others who share a house or car could be mistakenly or illegally searched.

Republican leaders say some study is needed, but hope their ideas will prompt changes.

The state's probation-parole system came under intense scrutiny last year when suspects charged in a number of high-profile criminal cases were found to be on probation when the crimes occurred.

Most publicized were the cases of two men charged in the shooting deaths of University of North Carolina senior Eve Carson in March and Duke University graduate student Abhijit Mahato in January 2008.

Probation officers lost track of the suspects in those cases, despite other arrests and charges. One suspect was in court days before Carson's slaying, but the matter was rescheduled.

Robert Guy, then-director of the state Department of Correction's Division of Community Corrections, defended his staff during an interview in December, saying the work that probation officers do is limited, in part, by funding and staffing needs.

Since problems came to light, the state has allocated $2.5 million for new jobs in probation and parole offices.

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