JOHN HOOD: Governor Easley Has Poor Defense on the Probation Mess
Who does Mike Easley think he's fooling?
I suppose it's possible that the governor doesn't really think he's fooling anybody, or doesn't much care one way or the other. By next month, he'll be former Gov. Easley. But I have to think that when he emerged from hiding this week to respond to The News & Observer's devastating "Losing Track" series on the state's troubling probation and parole system, Easley intended to offer an effective defense of his administration's conduct.
Whatever his intention, the result was disastrous.
Easley did not offer any serious rebuttal to The N&O's specific findings -- that the state had woefully mismanaged and underfunded the officers, databases, and technologies necessary to supervise probationers and parolees, leading to tragic cases of repeat offenders victimizing innocent North Carolinians.
Instead, the governor alleged that the probation and parole system wasn't the problem at all, that the crimes committed by inadequately tracked offenders were the result of lenient sentencing. "The current system puts people on probation who shouldn't be on probation," he told the newspaper. "Until those people are put behind bars, this is going to continue."
Perhaps this will sound strange coming from a conservative, but I think Easley's "lock-'em-up" position is nonsense. It doesn't comport with the evidence. It is self-serving. And as The N&O reported, the Easley administration does not seem to have pushed for major changes in state sentencing rules. After 16 years as either governor or attorney general, if Easley truly believed that North Carolina's criminal laws were dangerously lax, surely he would have made it priority to change them.
Are there some crimes that deserve tougher minimum sentences than North Carolina imposes? Most of us would probably say yes to that question. But we'd probably be thinking of violent crimes such as rapes, homicides, or armed robberies. Many individuals on probation have prior convictions for such offenses as small-dollar thefts or drug crime.
Some then go on to commit more violent crimes, but surely Easley is not suggesting that the taxpayers of North Carolina pay for some massive increase in preventive detention as a response. The benefits wouldn't come close to exceeding the costs of such an endeavor, which is pretty much why probation has always been an integral part of any rational criminal-justice system.
Arguably, North Carolina should be making more use of alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent and drug offenses, not less. Intensive probation is expensive, but far less so than locking offenders up in prison for months or years at a time.
I certainly don't believe that our sentences for violent crimes or habitual felons are too strict. But those two classes of crimes account for only about 60 percent of the state's current prison population. If Easley is proposing that we send additional drug users, petty thieves, and drunk drivers to prison, because the current probation system can't effectively keep track of them, I think the proper answer is a dismissive and disgusted snort.
The plain fact of the matter is that the politicians running Raleigh over the last decade, in both the executive and legislative branches, have not made law enforcement and public safety a priority when it came to allocating tax dollars and talented personnel. There is no powerful, well-funded constituency looking out for the political interests of crime victims or overworked probation officers.
More money for teacher pay and class-size reduction wins you support from the teacher union. More money for universities wins you support from elites and influential alumni. More money for Medicaid wins you support from hospitals and other medical providers.
Set aside the question of fiscal priorities. The evidence points overwhelmingly to poor management, if not gross incompetence, among the officials Easley put in charge of our public-safety agencies. Their shortcomings reflect poorly on the man who chose them and failed to supervise them effectively (talk about "losing track").
By casting the blame on sentencing laws, the governor is trying to deflect it away from the obvious suspect. But the only person Easley could possibly be fooling is himself.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of CarolinaJournal.com.
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