Faced with steep budget cuts and declining staff, Nassau County's Department of Probation is limiting its direct monitoring of thousands of criminal offenders, most of them nonviolent.
Nearly 2,000 nonviolent probationers, who once had to check in monthly by telephone, now mail in form letters confirming they have not been rearrested, county officials said.
More than 1,100 probationers with open warrants for their arrest now are encouraged in letters to turn themselves in rather than have probation officers and U.S. Marshals chase them down.
The changes come as the department, which monitors more than 7,200 probationers, has reduced its workforce by more than 18 percent in the past year as Nassau looks to close a multimillion-dollar budget deficit.
County Executive Edward Mangano's 2013 budget proposal cuts the department's budget further. If approved by the county legislature, the budget would be $18.3 million, a 1.9 percent decrease from what the department expects to spend this year through Dec. 31.
Probation Director John Fowle said the cuts haven't hampered monitoring, and that the agency is operating more efficiently without jeopardizing public safety.
But Jerry Laricchiuta, president of the Civil Service Employees Association, which represents probation staff, said Fowle's policies "put the public at risk. You don't loosen the rope on people in probation. You tighten it."
Fowle, who has run the department since January 2010, said the concerns are unfounded.
"There are a small number of officers who are admittedly unhappy and have seen the most change in their day-to-day activities," he said. "Some of these workers have seen their overtime reduced. And some want the department to fail to prove their point."
The cuts began shortly after Fowle took over and accelerated in December when the department laid off 24 employees and nine others took a voluntary retirement incentive.
A staff of 193 full-time employees now manages 7,240 cases of people on probation as part of their sentencing for criminal convictions or as a condition of pretrial release. The 2013 budget also funds the salaries of 21 detention workers who don't perform probation duties.
In an effort to save on overtime, Mangano, a Republican, has continued a policy started in 2009 under Thomas Suozzi, his Democratic predecessor, of leaving sex offenders with GPS bracelets unmonitored by probation staff at nights and on weekends. There are eight such offenders.
Some probation employees criticize Fowle for relying on state computer programs that determine how much direct contact with the probationer is necessary. In a November 2011 email, Fowle told staffers to de-emphasize "gut" and "instinct" and focus on risk assessment programs, which he said will better determine if someone will re-offend -- one of the variables that determines how closely probationers are monitored.
Fowle justified the changes as necessary to ensure that all probationers face an impartial system that doesn't rely exclusively on staff judgments.
"Some of my employees still need to accept that the world has changed, and along with it how we do our jobs," he said.
John Carway of Southold, who ran the department from 1999 to 2007, sympathized with the budget cuts but said Fowle relies too heavily on computerized risk assessment. "I would not be comfortable implementing these changes," he said.
Phone check-in dropped
The budget crunch led Fowle this year to abandon an $80,000-a-year system that allowed 2,000 nonviolent offenders, most on probation for driving while intoxicated, to check in by phone. Those individuals, considered the least likely to commit another crime, now must mail in a letter each month disclosing where they are living, if they are attending counseling and if they have been rearrested. Individuals are eligible for the program after 3 months on probation.
But union officials say the mail system is flawed because it relies on new convictions and arrests, rather than past criminal history to determine supervision level. For example, a man with nine previous DWI convictions was deemed eligible for the mail program, but probation staff intervened and forced him into a higher level of supervision, according to union and department officials.
Fowle confirms that account but said supervisory decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.
State policies followed
Martin Horn, New York City's former commissioner of correction and probation, said not all offenders require in-person monitoring. "You need to figure out who needs face-to-face contact with a probation officer, and who doesn't," said Horn, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "It's not a simple answer."
In Suffolk, such nonviolent offenders report in person quarterly and by phone monthly, county spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said.
Fowle said Nassau's system complies with state mandates. "We need to do everything we can to make the budget manageable," he said.
Janine Kava, spokeswoman for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, said Nassau's policies follow "the rules and regulations as set forth by state probation."
Recidivism among probationers in the mail system, Fowle said, is 2 percent, identical to the phone program.
Probation staff contend those numbers are skewed because they don't include failed drug tests and those who abscond -- incidents that do not necessarily result in re-arrests or new convictions. The recidivism rate for all probationers has remained at 6 percent for years, Fowle said.
Not on nights, weekends
Sex-offender monitoring also has undergone significant changes in recent years.
The offenders under court order to wear GPS tracking devices are subject to a variety of restrictions depending on the case, including times they must be at home and prohibitions from going near schools. If the offender is not where he or she is required to be, a monitoring company will call the individual and send an alert to the department office, which is staffed only on weekdays.
From 2001 to 2006, Nassau monitored those offenders during weekday business hours, but not at night or on weekends. After a 2006 report by then-Comptroller Howard Weitzman criticized the monitoring as inadequate to protect the public, Nassau secured a $500,000 state grant to provide 24-hour coverage by an officer on call at nights and on the weekends. Suffolk also uses such a system, Baird-Streeter said.
But the Nassau grant expired in 2009 under Suozzi and the nighttime and weekend monitoring was scrapped. Mangano, who took office the next year, also hasn't funded the program.
Lior Gideon of Great Neck, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the concerns are overblown and that the GPS system, in and of itself, doesn't prevent crime. "I don't think we will see any change in our public safety because of these changes," Gideon said.Fowle said 24-hour monitoring would cost $150,000 per year in overtime. "From the standpoint of public safety, there are significantly better ways to spend those valuable resources," said Fowle, who initiated the GPS system when he ran the unit in 2001 said.
But he said he recognizes his sex offender strategy has risks. "I live in a world of what-ifs," Fowle said. "And I am haunted by those scenarios."
Laricchiuta said the cost of 24-hour monitoring is a small price to pay for public safety.
"These are the services you should get when you pay among the highest taxes in the country," said Laricchiuta, who is calling for public hearings into the probation cutbacks.