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Band-Aids for bullets

Legislators, governor fail Eve Carson again

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Technically speaking, Demario Atwater and Laurence Lovette pulled the trigger.

But murdered UNC-Chapel Hill student body president Eve Carson and Duke University graduate student Abhijit Mahato, who Lovette also stands accused of killing, are also victims of the state's broken probation system.

So numerous and alarming were the signs that the system was in shambles that Gov. Mike Easley and state legislative leaders also have blood on their hands, in these cases and in others.

At the time of Carson's murder, Atwater, 21, a repeat felon, was supposed to be on a curfew and under intense supervision but had gone more than a year without a phone call from a probation officer. None of the 10 different probation officers his case was shuffled to knew he should have been on curfew, subject to nighttime checks of that curfew, or should have met with his probation officer weekly. Lovette, 17, was also on probation for other crimes but never had contact with his probation officer, who was supposed to be monitoring him, while he committed numerous crimes. The probation officer had been on the job several months at the time of Carson's murder but had never received basic job training in how to monitor offenders and should have been terminated because she was facing a pending DWI charge.

Atwater and Lovette's cases were typical. A federal study released last week found that in 80 percent of 1,400 cases in Durham, where the study was conducted, basic probation policies were not being followed. But this is old news.

In 2000, after a probation officer lost his gun, an investigation of the Durham office showed that some defendants had gone five years without any contact with their probation officer. The Raleigh News & Observer reported that studies of the state's probation system in 2004 showed that the state's computer system was so archaic that police and probation officers aren't alerted by computer when a probationer or parolee is accused of committing another crime. Probation officers weren't leaving their desks to check on their charges and were often unaware of whether their charges were meeting the terms of their probation.

The system is so underfunded and understaffed and probation officers are so poorly paid, the N&O reported, that in some counties a quarter of probation positions go unfilled. Meanwhile, probation officers managing high-risk offenders in some offices regularly had 100 or more cases, far more than the 60 cases maximum set by law.

Dr. Mark Knelson's wife Lisa, a mother of two, was killed two years ago in a car crash in Durham by a sex offender and habitual felon who should have been in jail. Shawn Maurice Powell, the man who killed Lisa Knelson, had had more than 100 charges in a 12-year span and had not met any of his probation requirements in more than a year. He was driving a stolen car and had run a red light at the time of the crash.

"It's been a tough couple of months for me after the Eve Carson death, wondering should I have made more noise, should I have sued the state," Knelson told the newspaper.

It would take tens of millions of dollars that should have been spent long ago to fix the state's probation system. The statewide computer system needed to track wayward thugs on probation alone would cost upwards of $10 million.

So what did Easley and state legislature do? They threw a measly $2.5 million at the system this year without making any management changes. Not a single person lost their job after Carson's death. It's a safe bet that the only reason that any additional dollars were thrown the way of the probation system this time, as opposed to the three other times that studies clearly demonstrated the system was in shambles, is that this is a major election year. The long-time Democrat leaders who run the state know that Republicans could have tied Eve Carson's murder around Democrat leaders' necks and hung them with it in the gubernatorial and state legislature races -- if the state Republican party had two wits and a campaign and fundraising structure worth a damn.

Since it doesn't, Democratic legislative leaders spent a mere additional $2.5 million on the probation system as a cautionary political protection measure and saved the big bucks for stuff that really matters to them, like $24 million for a new polar bear exhibit at the state zoo.

The result? Deluxe accommodations for zoo animals while two brilliant young people with untold potential were shot dead like animals.

The saddest part? Until voters figure out what is going on here, it will just keep happening again and again.

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