Editorial: Criminals on the loose
Sunday, December 14, 2008
By News & Record
When Greensboro police investigate crimes, they’re usually not looking for strangers. “We are dealing with at least 65 percent repeat offenders,” Chief Tim Bellamy said last week.But making an arrest often just continues a maddening cycle: Suspects go to court, plead guilty to lesser charges, are released on probation and commit more crimes.Deadly consequencesNorth Carolina’s probation system is one weak link in that chain of failure. The public was horrified last spring when it learned the alleged killers of UNC student Eve Carson were on probation for other offenses and could have been in custody.It wasn’t an isolated occurrence. Recent reporting by The News & Observer of Raleigh reveals widespread deficiencies by the Division of Community Corrections, the state agency entrusted with monitoring criminals on probation.The newspaper documented 580 killings in eight years by people on probation. Thousands of probationers are considered missing, including 19 percent in Guilford County, the second-highest ratio in the state.Frustrating for police“We’ve lost control of the system,” Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes said, pointing to the jail population: “They’re the same people in there all the time, and they’re in there for heinous crimes.”“It becomes very, very frustrating,” High Point police Chief Jim Fealy said. He’d like to see more criminals sent to prison, fewer released on probation.It’s easy, but not always fair, to cast blame. Probation officers carry huge caseloads that make it impossible to monitor everyone closely. They lack up-to-date technology. And it’s not their decision to put dangerous offenders on probation in the first place.“As a group, probationers are not responsible people,” said Catherine Eagles, Guilford County’s senior resident Superior Court judge. “Could they be supervised better? Yes, with more resources. … A probation officer is not a miracle worker.”Prosecutors often offer plea bargains that include probation instead of active time — largely because backlogs mean they can’t bring all cases to trial. Judges can reject a deal they consider too lenient but don’t have time or resources to investigate each case in enough detail to know for certain whether an offender is a good risk for probation.And the state’s prisons are full, anyway. “You cannot just lock the door and throw away the key,” Guilford County Public Defender Wally Harrelson said. “You would bankrupt the state.”The search for solutionsThe status quo isn’t acceptable.Bellamy supports a stronger focus in juvenile court, where he says many young offenders learn to work a system that always gives them another chance until they’re hardened criminals.Fealy agrees. High Point police recently began working more closely with juvenile court officials to deal forcefully with the worst young offenders. The approach is similar to that pioneered by the city’s Violent Crimes Task Force, which gives offenders access to community resources to help change their behavior, but cracks down hard if they reject the opportunity.Greensboro police operate a similar task force, which supports initiatives to provide job training and other services to steer offenders away from crime.In a related effort, the Greensboro Merchants Association recently hosted a breakfast for local businesses, encouraging them to hire ex-offenders and offering information about federal tax credits if they do.“It is a community problem, and we need to address it with community solutions,” Steve Branch, GMA’s vice president and general manager, said.The Sheriff’s Office has joined with Goodwill Industries in a program to train ex-offenders for jobs.Barnes thinks the right programs can help but often face long odds. “The average education level is sixth grade in our jail,” he said. “You can’t get a job with a sixth-grade education.”It can be a tough sell, too, to ask a businessman to take a chance on a job candidate with a criminal record. Yet it’s a risk to leave that individual on the street with no means of making an honest living.Improvements at all levels are required, starting in Raleigh, where the present administration has showed little interest in fixing these problems. The next one must do better.Also needed: intervention for at-risk youngsters, including gang interdiction; more drug-treatment; stricter probation when appropriate, with tougher, swifter responses to violations; incarceration when lesser measures are inadequate; and practical help for offenders who want to make better choices.The cost of failure is an endless cycle of crime at everyone’s risk. The information I am posting comes from the Web or Hassett and Associates P.A. If you would like to learn more about us go to www.criminaldefense.cc.
Editorial: Criminals on the loose