July 26, 2006

On Probation = On Your Own?

Is there honor among thieves? There better be.

According to members of the Suffolk County Probation Officer's Union, the county's failure to maintain adequate staffing levels has left dozens of probationers to their own sometimes nefarious devices. "Basically, they're on the honor system," union president Donald Grauer said, testifying before the county legislature's public safety committee earlier this summer. Asked this week by Legislator Jay Schneiderman whether the dearth of officers poses a safety risk, VP Daniel delValle allowed, "If I lived in those communities, I'd be concerned."

At committee Grauer and delValle offered a shocking example of what inadequate supervision can mean. During a sting at their offices in Yaphank in May, close to a dozen probationers were re-arrested when they showed up for their scheduled appointments drunk, with drugs and even weapons. Two sex offenders had items used to groom potential victims — a Santa Claus suit, candy and a Cinderella video among them — in their cars. "If they're bringing this to the office, imagine what they're doing in the community," delValle said.

And in some areas, all officers can do is imagine. Union members report that the sector that includes Flanders, Riverhead and Calverton has been without an officer undertaking field supervision since last September. There are 200 uncovered cases in the sector, they say. Even more recently, one of two officers covering from Montauk to Southampton has been re-assigned upIsland with no word as to when he'll be replaced. That's another 74 cases uncovered. Additionally, five caseloads in western Suffolk have been vacated.

To the general public probation means a convicted criminal has to show up for regular appointments with an officer. That's only a fraction of the work real supervision entails, delValle told the legislators in committee. After the office visits, officers need to double check that what probationers tell them is true. They need to check that a probationer lives where he says he does, works where he says he does, and whether he is truly attending counseling, if that's part of his sentence. "Field work is such an important part of what we do. We need to verify their claims when they come in for a 10-minute interview," delValle explained. That's not happening for certain Level 2 probationers.

There are several levels of probationers. Level 2 probationers, the ones on the honor system in some sectors, can run the gamut from first offense drug dealers and burglars to sex offenders who have pled down to a lesser charge of child endangerment. Chronic repeat offenders are considered a different level and in need of more supervision. On the East End, the intensive supervision unit was eliminated a year ago, with those probationers added to Level 2 caseloads, union officials reported.

It gets worse. Union officials contend that the lack of field supervision has led to an increase in the number of absconders. Those are the guys (or gals) who don't even show up for their scheduled appointments. They've taken off and there's no way of locating them, until they get arrested for another crime. Only two officers are assigned to track down absconders across the whole county.

Even in-house supervision has become difficult because of staff shortages. Testament to the crushing caseloads, on one evening this spring, an officer in Riverhead was scheduled to meet with 80 probationers during a six-hour time frame.

During his presentation to the legislative committee, Grauer reported that countywide about 290 officers supervise over 1200 cases per year on average. With the county under orders to undertake a hugely expensive expansion of its jail facilities, probation serves as a cost effective alternative to incarceration. It costs $230 a day to take care of an inmate as opposed to a maximum of $8 per day for the highest-level probationer.

Beyond noting the difficulty staff shortages have meant, Grauer also spoke of another problem, the lack of adequate equipment. The department has just 57 cars for its nearly 300 officers. They lack even the most basic accoutrement. For example, when officers have to qualify at the firing range, it's a BYO situation. They have to bring their own flashlights to use during the nighttime test. Some officers are using body armor that's been deemed defective.

That news furrowed brows on the horseshoe. Legislator Vivian Fisher (D, East Setauket) promised to review the budget with an eye toward making sure officers have what they need to do their jobs. "No one should be going out in the field without a proper vest," Committee chair Jack Eddington (D. Patchogue) declared. When Fisher intoned, "This is a public safety issue," Schneiderman enjoined sarcastically, "apparently not."

"We will be addressing this issue," Eddington vowed as the discussion came to a close.

On Friday, Schneiderman offered a status report. He'd spoken with the administration in the Probation Department. "They said staffing levels are no shorter than they've ever been," he related. Thomas Henry, assistant to Commissioner John Desmond "really downplayed" the situation, according to the lawmaker. "I'm getting a very different picture from the Deputy Commissioner than from the probation officers themselves. We need to get to the bottom of this," Schneiderman said.

Speaking to The Independent Monday, Henry affirmed that staffing shortages are a way of life with the department. When he began his career 10 years ago, the administrator recalled, "I took a caseload that hadn't been covered for over a year." The official emphasized that while field visits are a missing piece of a puzzle, all "automatic" supervisory tools are still in place. Probationers still show up for required appointments, the office still receives notifications from agencies verifying whether they've shown up for counseling. "That's pretty much how it's always been," Henry summarized.

His numbers relating to uncovered cases differ from those reported by union officials. Henry estimated there are about 160 cases lacking field supervision on the East End. However, he said there's a good reason why those officers aren't monitoring Level 2 cases; they've been assigned to specialized drug units. The administration decided to allocate officers to covering drug cases recently, slating it a priority.

"Probation evolves and we do different things," Henry said, adding "and yeah, we wind up with holes." They'll be filled before September rolls around, the official predicted. A dozen new officers are currently undergoing training. While the official said overall uncovered caseloads are a tradition for the department, because it's a desirable assignment, it is indeed unusual for the East End to have any openings. When the new officers come on board this fall, he said, the local openings will be filled.

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