Problems with North Carolina's probation system prompts the state to create a dashboard to address issues.
Though Eve Carson and Abhijit Mahato likely never met, their deaths would become inextricably linked. Both were college students in North Carolina. Carson was a 22-year-old undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and student body president, and 29-year-old Mahato was a Ph.D. student at Duke University. And in early 2008, a 17-year-old named Lawrence Lovette allegedly had a hand in the brutal murders of both.
In January, Mahato was found shot to death in his apartment, which had been subsequently robbed. Lovette, along with a man named Stephen Oates, is currently awaiting trial for the murder.
In March, Carson was allegedly kidnapped from her home by Lovette and 21-year-old Demario Atwater. The men are accused of driving Carson to a bank, using her ATM card to extract money from her account, and then driving her to a residential neighborhood, where Lovette shot her five times with a .25 caliber handgun. Atwater is accused of delivering a final, fatal shotgun blast to Carson's head. Atwater has since pleaded guilty, however, Lovette's case is still pending.
During the investigations it was discovered that Atwater and Lovette were on probation at the time of the slayings. An April 2008 Associated Press report found that at the time of Carson's murder, Lovette's probation officer was handling 127 cases and hadn't received basic training. Atwater had never met with his probation officer and his case had been handled by 10 different officers.
"This is a dark cloud over our agency," said Robert Lee Guy, then-director of the North Carolina Division of Community Corrections, following the revelations.
The North Carolina Department of Correction had a serious problem on its hands. Though Atwater and Lovette may spend the rest of their lives in prison, the victims' friends and family no doubt wonder what might have been had the state's probation system not been so inept. Following the murders, North Carolina officials began investigating where the breakdowns in the probation system occurred. It soon became clear that while law enforcement, courts, juvenile justice and adult corrections each had some data, no agency had access to the big picture. And so the state General Assembly authorized $140,000 to start work on a system that could link the agencies together and give probation officers the tools they desperately needed.
"[Probation officers] had so many little things that happened right around the time of the slaughters that it brought to attention that it's important for agencies to share their information better than they were doing," said Cindy Cousins, application development manager of the North Carolina Department of Correction. "So the courts jumped right on this because the Legislature gave us money. It was just really good cooperation between us and the courts. It would have been hard to do on a normal workload without public [opinion] and the Legislature and everybody saying 'Yeah, let's get this done.'"
The final product was development of the Probation Officer's Dashboard, a software application that lets probation officers immediately identify individuals who've violated terms of their parole. To develop the dashboard, the Department of Correction assembled a small team of technical staff under Cousins to work with the court. The team was responsible for combing through all the court system's electronic records to match data to records in the Department of Correction. This was difficult because the courts track records by case numbers, while corrections tracks records by individual. It also was problematic since something as simple as a misspelled name in the court records could generate links to dozens of corrections records. Further complicating matters was that in North Carolina, individuals charged with a misdemeanor are not required to be fingerprinted.
"One person might be in there with their name spelled 20 different ways for 20 different cases," Cousins said. "We didn't have
a common entity since they do not do fingerprinting for misdemeanors, it was really hard to pull all that information together. That was the big challenge out of this whole project."
Driven by public outcry following the murders, the team got the dashboard online in six months. The dashboard provides probation officers a single-page view of their caseloads. The view shows offenders' photos, known addresses and contacts, physical traits, previous and pending case reviews and check-ins, the level of supervision required and anything else of note. Should an offender have a run-in with the law -- even something as simple as a traffic stop -- that information is uploaded into the court system. That day's data is then transferred to the dashboard every night at 8:00. The next day, probation officers are given alerts if their cases have had any contact with law enforcement. Even if an offender didn't commit a crime, the dashboard will inform a probation officer if an offender was in contact with law enforcement after an assigned curfew.
"The biggest key to this whole thing was the alerts in red whenever [probation officers] pull up their daily list to go print it out and to go work with whoever they need to go see, it shows that somebody on that list might have a criminal activity that night or the day before," Cousins said.
In the past, probation officers had to log on to the court system and search records one at a time for any new information on their cases. When an officer might be working 100 cases or more at any given moment, the dashboard yields significant time savings.
"We get great reviews from the probation officers," said Department of Correction CIO Bob Brinson. "That's because there's a whole set of tools that Cindy and her folks have wrapped around this. You can slice and dice and say, 'Let's see, we need to do some drug tests today. Who do I need to [test]? Who is out-of-date on that? I need to go do a home visit. I need to go do a work visit. Of my 100 caseloads that I have here, where are the ones that need attention?'"
The Probation Officer's Dashboard is also helping to track down thousands of offenders with whom contact had been lost. Now, because court and corrections data are linked, these individuals are being brought back into the fold.
"We' have a tremendous amount of absconders who do not report in and we've lost contact with them," Cousins said. "We had up to 14,000 [we'd lost contact with] at one time. Absconders may not understand that they were supposed to report in or they lost communication, but they may show up for court. That happens a lot. Well we know when their court date is. The officer now will see that they are supposed to go to court on this date for another charge.
"We also know when they got pulled over and maybe had a traffic offense in another county or something, so our officer can just log in like he normally does in the morning and see that one of his absconders had something happen like that and drill down and see the license tag and address information. We've gotten a lot of feedback that they've been able to pick up some of their absconders and issue the warrants on them."