Sunday, September 17, 2000

Probation officers ignoring court orders

Drug tests not enforced

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Drug abusers in Hamilton County routinely avoid possible jail sentences because probation officers fail to enforce court-ordered drug tests.

        Recent audits of court records show that mandatory urine tests have been missed in hundreds of cases, allowing drug offenders to dodge the most important requirement of their probation.

        In some cases, offenders who were supposed to be tested every week were tested only a few times a year.

        The results of the tests are crucial because judges rely on them when deciding whether someone should go to jail or remain free on probation.

        “This is a public-safety issue,” said Judge Deidre Hair, who oversees the county's drug court. “If you have addicts who continue to use drugs on probation, I don't see what the point of probation would be.

        “I can't imagine any point to it at all.”

        Judges and court officials are unsure why many tests are not being done, but they say they intend to find out.

        “I think we'll have some very serious discussions with

        some probation officers,” said Court Administrator Mike Walton.

        The revelations about drug testing come less than two months after former Chief Probation Officer Michael Snowden resigned after dozens of officers — and a few judges — criticized him for making changes in the department. He said inadequate oversight of the drug tests was one of the problems he intended to fix.

        “This doesn't surprise me,” said Mr. Snowden, a former Cincinnati police chief.

        “I found out early on that this was a problem. We found a whole lot of cases where tests were not being run.”

        He said an audit he conducted last year revealed hundreds of cases in which officers did not follow judges' orders.

        The audit of more than a dozen officers found only one had conducted all of the tests. Some had done about half, and one officer had done almost none.

        Common Pleas Judge Steven Martin said he got similar results when he did an audit of his drug cases last week after he discovered one case in which the tests had not been done. He said most of the 33 cases he's reviewed had “major problems.”

        Although court officials would not identify the officers or the drug offenders, Judge Martin said many of the officers' files show a disregard for court instructions.

        “They are violating our orders,” Judge Martin said of the probation officers.

        “It's not up to the probation department to pick and choose which of our orders they will follow.”

        He said the problems he found include:

        • A convicted drug offender who should have been tested five times a month since 1998, but was instead tested only 10 times in two years. One of the tests was positive for drugs.

        • An offender who should have been tested 42 times since 1998 but was tested 23.

        • An offender who was tested only five times in two years, despite an order requiring tests twice a month.

        Judge Hair said the drug tests, which are conducted at the probation department in downtown Cincinnati, are essential when dealing with drug abusers.

        She said the threat of a random drug test often is the only thing that will keep an offender off drugs. And it is the only way judges know for certain the offender is following the rules.

        The urine tests are tailored to each offender, with some testing for marijuana and others for everything from alcohol to cocaine.

        “The tests are the critical factor (in drug cases),” Judge Hair said. “To leave out the most critical factor is about as dumb as we can be.”

        Judge Hair, whose court emphasizes treatment programs, said constant problems with the tests prompted her to ask for more control over the probation officers in her courtroom.

        She has since been assigned seven officers who deal exclusively with drug cases. She said those officers follow her orders.

        “We have a whole different kind of accountability now,” Judge Hair said.

        Accountability was an issue Mr. Snowden said he tried to address during his 18-month stint as probation chief.

        When he arrived, he said, officers complained about the testing because it was time-consuming and required them to handle cups filled with urine.

        That changed, however, when the county agreed to pay a private firm about $100,000 a year to collect the specimens. County labs still do the testing.

        Now probation officers are responsible for scheduling the test and notifying the court if it comes back positive.

        “Once we hired someone to take the urine, there was no reason not to have people in for testing,” Mr. Snowden said.

        “All they have to do is pick up the phone and call (the offenders).”

        Mr. Walton, now the acting probation chief, said the number of tests went up dramatically after the firm was hired in June 1999.

        In May 1999 — when probation officers collected the specimens — 793 samples were collected. In May of this year, 2,926 were taken.

        Even with the higher numbers, Judge Martin said, too many tests are not being done. He said an offender he sentenced in February already has missed three of seven tests he was ordered to take.

        “It's disheartening,” the judge said. “It's still not being done to an acceptable level.”

        Mr. Walton said the problems with testing do not involve all officers and appear to be most prevalent in common pleas court, which handles the most serious offenders.

        Officers who were outspoken during the dispute with Mr. Snowden could not be reached for comment Saturday.

        Mr. Walton said the probation department is working on a new testing system that would further reduce the responsibilities of probation officers.

        Under the system, every offender will be assigned a color and told to call the department every day. When they do, a recording will tell them the “color of the day.”

        If it's their color, they must go in for testing that day.

        Mr. Walton said he will continue to investigate any problems judges find in their case files. He would not discuss what, if any, disciplinary action might be taken.

        But he said it's clear the role of the county's roughly 100 probation officers is to carry out all of the judges' orders, including drug testing. He said it's not their job to decide which tests to do and which to ignore.

        “People don't elect the probation officers to make these decisions,” he said.


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