SIKESTON - Budget cuts in the Department of Corrections are resulting in more convicts being placed on minimum supervision, raising concerns among local officials.
"It means less supervision, less accountability for the individuals on probation," said Scott County Prosecutor Paul Boyd. "Unfortunately with that, being placed on felony probation doesn't mean very much because of the lack of supervision."
A letter from the Missouri Department of Corrections Board of Probation and Parole dated May 4 sent to county prosecutors and other officials explains budget reductions to meet Fiscal Year 2006 spending goals for the state has resulted in a reduction in staff of 53 probation and parole officers.
Staff reductions will be achieved through attrition, according to Sharon Derrington, district administrator for probation and parole.
"Our agency is currently operating at full capacity. In order to meet the staff reduction target we will have to reduce services for some offenders under our supervision," Denis Agniel, chairman of the probation and parole board, advises in the letter.
In reducing services to level the remaining staff can handle, the Board decided there must be no reduction in supervision services for the highest risk and need population served by the agency including sex offenders, dangerous felons as well as those being served by specialized programs such as drug courts. Partnerships with other state agencies currently providing services to probation and parole clients would also be explored.
To meet these criteria, board members decided to expand eligibility for minimum supervision and seek workload relief through greater cooperation with the Family Support Division on criminal non-support cases under the agencies' joint supervision.
The letter explains minimum supervision is the agency's lowest level of supervision which take the form of monthly phone reports from the client on an interactive voice response system that is monitored by a probation and parole officer.
Offenders will now quality for minimum supervision earlier in the supervision process - after 60 days instead of six months - if they score at the minimum level on the risk and need assessment. Those that are participating in treatment but otherwise score at the minimum supervision level on the assessment will now qualify for minimum supervision although treatment progress will continue to be monitored while on minimum supervision.
The transition period of 60 days to six months at set supervision levels currently required for offenders in specialized programs will be eliminated. The supervision level will not be determined exclusively by the risk and need assessment.
Agniel pointed out in the letter than sex offenders and dangerous felons will not be eligible for minimum supervision regardless of their risk and need assessment score and noted the risk and needs assessment process prevents offenders that are currently unemployed, have a substance abuse problem or are in violation status from being eligible for minimum supervision.
"An overarching goal for our agency has been to focus on public safety during this workload reduction review," Agniel writes in the letter. "We believe we achieve this by reducing services to lower risk and need clients."
Boyd said the public at large may not notice or realize the significance of this change but word will get out on the streets.
"For those who are bent on criminal activity, the lack of meaningful probation will make it a joke," Boyd said. "For those individuals who are thinking about crossing over the line, the knowledge that there is no accountability if convicted of a felony takes away any fear of possible punishment as a first-
time offender. It's almost like they're getting a free pass for the first time although its going to depend on what the charge is."
Boyd said the law should be fair but firm. "Being placed on probation is supposed to be an alternative to jail time or prison time as a form of punishment," he said. "If probation doesn't have any teeth its telling them they did something wrong without any accountability - it's not a deterrent for future crimes."
Derrington said while the phone reports are made using an interactive voice response system, "certain aspects of supervision, compliance with conditions set by the probation and parole board, will still be monitored on a monthly basis or more frequently."
Documentation is required for verification in some instance such as receipts from the court showing restitution payments, for example. To prove employment, "we ask for check stubs to be submitted or sometimes there's contact with the employer," Derrington said. "Those things will still continued to be monitored on a monthly basis."