Local News

Governor signs probation reform bill

Posted July 30, 2009 11:50 a.m. EDT
Updated July 30, 2009 7:15 p.m. EDT

— Gov. Bev Perdue has signed a bill that will give law enforcement and probation officers the authority to perform warrantless searches in certain situations and give probation officers limited access to juvenile records.

"With these reforms, I really do believe, we in North Carolina are on the right pathway to make sure we do all that we can do to help these 115,000 to 120,000 people who are on probation in our system understand we mean business," the governor told a crowd outside the Raleigh Police Department Thursday afternoon.

"When you're on probation, you're still a ward of the court, you're still a ward of the system, and we'll put you back in a city minute, if you play outside the box."

The new law allows any law enforcement officer to perform a search of a probationer without court permission, if he or she has reasonable suspicion that a probationer is involved in criminal activity or has a weapon.

"We're going to draw a strong box around that search," Perdue said. "It’s not going to be used for anything other than what it is."

Effective immediately, all warrants for parole-commissioned violators will also be expedited immediately, regardless of the infraction.

"We've eliminated the idea of routine under this administration," Perdue said. "There is absolutely no warrant in this state that should be deemed routine. Every warrant is important to somebody."

The legislation also allows officers to examine juvenile records of a probationer for offenses that would have been felonies had they been committed while the offender was an adult. Juvenile records are usually sealed.

The disclosed records will help a probation officer determine what kind of supervision the adult probationer needs.

"This is important stuff," Perdue said. "You've seen what's happened."

Problems with the probation came to light in the wake of the 2008 shooting deaths of
Duke University graduate student Abhijit Mahato in January and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student body president Eve Carson in March.

Laurence Alvin Lovette Jr. and Demario James Atwater, who are charged in Carson's death, were on probation at the time.

Officials later said Lovette – who is also a suspect in Mahato's death – was charged with nine different crimes during six weeks while he was on probation but that he never met with his probation officer.

Atwater's case was handled by 10 different staff members who failed to follow procedures between 2005 and 2008, the state has said.

Atwater was twice ordered to be placed under intensive probation, which includes mandatory curfews, weekly contact and warrantless searches, but the officers handling his case never did so.

Carson was killed a few days after Atwater was first scheduled to appear on a probation violation resulting from firearms charge to which he had pleaded guilty eight months earlier.

He was sent to the wrong courtroom and the probation hearing was delayed.

Reviews of the probation system – both internally and by the National Institute of Corrections – found that inadequate staffing, high turnover rates, case reassignments and lack of training led to deficiencies in supervision.

Two other high-profile cases this summer – including a man in North Carolina recently paroled from prison whom authorities believe killed five people in South Carolina before he was shot and killed in Gastonia – have also highlighted strains in the state's probation and parole system.

Last week, Tim Moose, director of the Division of Community Corrections, told The Associated Press that offender oversight has improved since last year but acknowledged the need for refinement and an ongoing review of operations.

Caseloads are still high and recruitment and retention efforts remain difficult, he said. Officials said there are 146 vacant probation-parole positions, more than last year, as the agency struggles to bring workers into a low-paying and dangerous duty.

Technology has also advanced, but officials are still looking at ways to better communicate and track offenders.

"We're going to continue to improve the technology to better share information between probation and law enforcement officers," Perdue said. "It's ridiculous, in my mind, that we weren't already doing it. Now, we're doing it."

Moose said the agency is also looking at implementing an assessment process so officers can focus their attention on the riskiest offenders.

State lawmakers have also approved a bill allowing low-risk probationers to go unsupervised, lightening the caseload of officers.

Lawmakers added $2.5 million to the program budget last year, but they've yet to finalize a budget this year, so it's not clear if they will fulfill Perdue's request to spend $25 million extra over the next two years to hire more officers and supervisors and increase pay to improve recruitment and retention, among other things.

"We've asked the governor for the tools to do our job better. Now, she has given us these tools," said Department of Correction Secretary Alvin Keller, who joined Perdue at Thursday's bill signing. "Gov. Perdue, I assure you, we will use these tools for the work of the good people of North Carolina."