Politics & Government

New law gives N.C. probation officers access to juvenile records

RALEIGH, N.C. — Police and probation officers had their powers expanded Thursday with a new law that responds to problems discovered in the state's probation system after the killings of two Triangle university students.

The reforms signed into law by Gov. Beverly Perdue will allow probation officers to access portions of a probationer's juvenile record, previously considered off-limits because of confidentiality concerns. Police, not just probation officers, will also be able to search offenders when they suspect criminal wrongdoing without needing a judge to sign off on a warrant.

At a news conference in front of the Raleigh Police Department, Perdue called the reforms a "critical first step" toward fixing the system assigned to supervise 114,000 people on probation and parole.

But the probation department still has serious stress, primarily from a growing list of vacant positions. In December, the department had 118 vacancies among probation officers; today, the number has swelled to 145.

Correction spokesman Keith Acree said the department is delaying filling lower-level positions slated for an increase in pay and responsibility. The department needs additional funding in this year's budget, he said.

And the General Assembly has yet to approve more money for more officers. Perdue pressed legislators to find room for $24.2 million in a tight budget to pay for 175 new officers and raises for the 1,048 existing officers over the next two years.

The Senate has gone along with part of her plan, adding in its budget proposal 129 probation officers and supervisors and giving most probation officers a bump in salary. But a House version didn't include money for new positions. The fate of Perdue's proposal isn't clear; the House and Senate are tussling over their final budget bill, which could emerge as early as next week.

The push for changes in the probation system came from two catalysts: the deaths of two Triangle university students early in 2008, and reporting in The News & Observer that culminated in a three-part series in December.

The N&O series detailed a probation system in crisis.

A high number of vacancies forced probation officers to carry dangerously heavy caseloads, resulting in botched oversight of many cases and 13,000 missing offenders. Since 2,000, 580 probationers had killed while under state supervision.

The reporting followed the high-profile deaths of UNC student body president Eve Carson and Duke graduate student Abhijit Mahato. Two of the defendants in those cases were on probation and had received scant attention from the Wake and Durham probation offices.

Read the full story at newsobserver.com

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