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Easley needs to shoulder blame for probation failures

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Before Eve Carson and Abhijit Mahato, there was Frederick Johnson.

Johnson was a drug addict and a repeat offender. In the months before he was shot to death during a robbery in 1999, Johnson violated his probation in a myriad of ways. Unlike most criminals, Johnson was actually trying, with the help of his father, to return to prison to get the drug treatment he needed and to make a break from a lifestyle he feared would kill him.

But Durham probation and parole officers overlooked violations of Johnson's parole, particularly continued drug use. They lowered Johnson's level of supervision despite his failure to meet minimum requirements and his pleas to be returned to prison, the Raleigh News & Observer reported at the time.

Johnson's murder led to a full-scale state investigation of the Durham probation and parole office. It revealed a shocking level of chaos. Among other things, the investigation found that officers were failing to supervise offenders on a grand scale, allowing criminals to skip out on payments owed to victims and modifying their sentences improperly.

Officers had fabricated case file entries, failed to request the arrest of defendants who committed serious crimes and did little or nothing when violent offenders missed appointments.

The situation had deteriorated to the point that the investigation found two offenders who committed serious crimes went up to five years without meeting with an officer or paying a combined $35,000 in victims' restitution.

It's a story eerily similar to the one that the N&O published in The Charlotte Observer this week in the wake of the brutal murders of Carson, the student body president of UNC-Chapel Hill, and Mahato, a Duke University grad student. This spring, it was discovered that the two offenders who killed them could or should have been in prison for violating the terms of their probations for other crimes.

Johnson's story was published by the N&O in 2000 after his father raised a ruckus about the way his case was handled by the state's Division of Community Corrections.

Things were so bad back in 2000 that Superior Court Judge Ronald Stephens wrote a letter calling probation officers' conduct "totally unacceptable, in fact, outrageous."

The problem, Robert Lee Guy, director of the state Division of Community Corrections, explained to the N&O eight years ago, was that some officers were handling up to 145 cases when they were supposed have no more than 90.

Sound familiar? The problems found in 2000 are the exact same ones Guy is attempting to explain now. But since then, according to the N&O's story last week, 580 people committed murder or manslaughter while under the supervision of the N.C. Division of Community Corrections.

The corrections division can't prevent every homicide or even every homicide by those it manages on parole or probation. But when violent repeat offenders kill when they should have been in prison because they violated their probation or parole, it becomes a matter of geography. Offenders who are locked up when they should be can't victimize innocent people.

"We do have an obligation to clean this up," Guy told the N&O in 2000. "I will not tolerate probation officers, supervisors or managers not doing their job."

Amazingly, though the 2000 scandal about the fiasco in the corrections department broke as Mike Easley was running for governor, Easley kept Guy and his boss, Secretary of Correction Theodis Beck, in place when he assumed office the next year.

Then came another study in 2004 that made it clear that the same problems still persisted, including that officers were actually discouraged from revoking the probation of criminals who committed new crimes or didn't comply with terms set in court. Still, Guy and Beck retained their positions.

Fast forward to this spring, after it was alleged that Demario Atwater and Laurence Alvin Lovette had killed Carson after corrections officials bungled their probation, barely supervising the two and losing track of them for long periods of time. (Lovette is also charged with killing Mahato.)

Given the media coverage the Carson killing generated, it would seem that any politician presiding over this who had a pulse would be mortified.

But Easley, who is ultimately responsible for the corrections system, was barely responsive.

In July, yet another study, this one by the National Institute of Corrections, made clear once again where the blame for the Carson and Mahato killings falls.

According to the report, there was "ineffective management oversight at each level in the DCC."

"Management was in the position to know the organizational challenges and problems that existed could contribute to ineffective performance by the staff," the report read. The same federal review, according to the N&O, found that in 80 percent of 1,400 cases examined in Durham, policies were not followed adequately.

The studies, which came out this summer, documented a system so broken down that it had nearly ceased to function.

Yet Easley once again did nothing, leaving Beck in place and allowing Guy to make a big show of transferring a few middle managers in the probation system into new jobs at the same salaries as "punishment."

Incredibly, no one lost his job. Now, as the state's editorial boards call for Guy and Beck to be fired, Easley is skipping off into the sunset, carrying little of the blame, with blood all over his hands.

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