In a perfect world, probation would offer a successful middle ground betweeen freedom and prison. Nonviolent offenders would find their bearings, check in with counselors regularly and, with help, navigate their way to jobs and productive lives in mainstream North Carolina.
That perfect world, unfortunately, doesn’t exist.
Probation officers in the past faced huge caseloads, antiquated tracking systems and a high frequency of burnout. Those conditions probably played a role in the tragic case of Eve Carson, the late student body president of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who was murdered by two offenders whom the probation system failed to monitor or detain properly.
The N.C. General Assembly took steps last year to address some of those issues. The Justice Reinvestment Act gave probation officers more flexibility in dealing with clients. They can reprimand offenders on their own, order drug tests, electronic monitoring and even send them to jail for a few days without having to go to court for permission.
The new policy makes probation officers more nimble and, we hope, more satisfied with the power they have. It also can reduce the burden on North Carolina taxpayers. Slapping a two-day jail sentence on a client whose conduct is slipping is much cheaper than simply sending him back to prison. We dare hope that it has a better chance of leading to some permanent improvements in behavior, as well.
It’s safe to say the new system needs accountability. Lawmakers would be wise to order a detailed report on how well the revisions are working, then make modifications, as needed.
But the Reinvestment Act certainly has more potential for positive change than the previous probation system did. It will never be perfect, but with good oversight, it might come close.