Commentary: North Carolina's probation system needs repairs

This editorial appeared in The (Raleigh) News & Observer.

The numbers are nothing less than frightening. Since the start of 2000, 580 people in North Carolina have killed someone while they supposedly were under the watch of the state's probation officers. That's right – people who were supposed to be under that watch represented 17 percent of all convictions for intentional killings.

How can that be?

Let it be said that these criminals make their own bad choices, for which they themselves ultimately are responsible. But a properly functioning probation system would prevent a good deal of this mayhem. As things stand, the system, under the state's Department of Correction, has been poorly run. Too many of the officers apparently just aren't doing their jobs. There aren't enough officers and it's difficult to fill the ranks because salaries are low. And the tracking system that's supposed to be a tool to keep up with those on probation either doesn't work or hasn't been used properly.

Robert Guy, who's in charge under Correction Secretary Theodis Beck, offers a pitiful excuse for some cases. He says his chain of command has let him down. Beck says he's surprised by the numbers. Governor Easley said in a statement that more probationers need to be in jail, but he declined a request to be interviewed on the subject by The News & Observer. The N&O's Joseph Neff, Sarah Ovaska, David Raynor and Anne Blythe worked on the report. It is sad that the governor, even with just a month to go in office, would not be fully and publicly engaged in addressing this most serious problem.

Beck is leaving office on his own, retiring. Guy, who has held his job since 1997, looks like a good candidate for replacement after Gov.-elect Beverly Perdue takes office next month. And perhaps a few of those folks in the alleged chain of command need to go as well, because it appears to be a chain with many weak links.

We are not talking here about some minor bureaucratic snafu. When the probation system doesn't work as it should, people die. The state must have a way of effectively monitoring those who are on probation and who may have tendencies to commit other crimes. Probation officers must keep up with them on a regular basis, and get involved.

To read the complete editorial, visit The (Raleigh) News & Observer.