Criminal probation appears to be a simple agreement: Offenders can avoid prison if they behave; those who don’t will be put behind bars. The Raleigh News & Observer reports that in parts of North Carolina that agreement wasn’t so clear. James Fullwood, who oversees probation offices in 22 counties, said superiors discouraged officers from sending offenders back to prison even when they broke the terms of their supervision. Fullwood said probation leaders would discuss the revocation rate — how many probationers are sent to prison — for each of the state’s 43 probation offices. Fullwood said the policy aimed to avoid overcrowding prisons and to help probationers find jobs, stay drug-free, and go to school. The policy may have left dangerous offenders on the street even when their behavior indicated they were headed for serious crimes.
It also appears to conflict with the get-tough spirit of recent statements from former Gov. Mike Easley. Easley said the level of crimes committed by probationers — including 580 killings since 2000 — reflects too many dangerous offenders being placed on probation instead of being sent to prison. The probation department’s reluctance to revoke the freedom of repeat offenders drew the angry attention of a judge and became a flash point in a 2007 murder case. Judge Frank Lanier, who spent the first five years of his career as a probation officer, questioned for years why more probationers weren’t having their status revoked. Four probationers were arrested in connection with the killing of a 12-year-old girl in 2007. Some suspects in the death had been accused of violating probation, but they had not lost their freedom. That caused the judge to say he was skeptical when probation officers recommend that probation not be revoked.