Thursday, September 28, 2000

Judges tighten drug-test rules


Dozens of probation officers will have disciplinary hearings

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Hamilton County's judges changed the way convicted felons are tested for drugs Wednesday after learning many were not tested at all.

        The Common Pleas judges ordered a new drug testing program and approved disci plinary hearings for dozens of probation officers who were supposed to conduct the tests under the old program.

        The move came less than two weeks after the Enquirer reported that probation officers routinely failed to carry out the court-ordered tests, allowing criminals to use drugs without risk of detection.

        The judges confirmed Wednesday that a recent audit found hundreds of missed drug tests in Common Pleas Court, which handles the most-serious offenders.

        “Some of these probation officers underperformed greatly and ignored court orders,” said Court Administrator Mike Walton. “For these officers, I would rec ommend discipline.

        “We cannot ignore this.”

        Inadequate drug testing is one of several problems identified in recent audits of the probation department and its 100 officers.

        The audits also have found that some officers could do a better job keeping tabs on offenders, while others need to improve their collection of fines and fees owed to the county.

        Although the audits re viewed officers in both Common Pleas and Municipal courts, the vast majority of problems were found in Common Pleas.

        At their quarterly meeting Wednesday, the Common Pleas judges agreed drug testing is the most serious problem. “The addicts will tell you that probation is a joke,” said Judge Deidre Hair, who runs the county's drug court.

        Mr. Walton agreed the problems are widespread, but he said increased public scrutiny and a recent audit of drug cases by Judge Steven Martin has spurred dramatic change.

        He said probation officers now are doing more drug tests than ever, seeing more offenders in person and making fine collection a bigger priority.

        “I can guarantee you that right now the probation department is functioning at a higher level than it has in its history,” said Mr. Walton, who also is the acting chief of the department.

        “That's been caused by what Judge Martin has found and by what we've been reading in the newspaper.”

        To make sure the improvements stay on track, the judges approved Mr. Walton's plan to revamp the probation department's drug testing program.

        The new program would create a uniform testing system, requiring every offender to undergo three urine tests a week during their first two months of probation. The number of tests would taper off in later months as long as the offender continued to test negative.

        Under the old system, each judge would order a specific number of tests for each offender, meaning each case could be on a different test schedule.

        Mr. Walton said the new system would make it easier for probation officers to keep track of their cases, although he conceded the old system was not especially complicated.

        “They still have to do the tests,” Judge Martin said of the probation officers. “There's been previous court orders that they've ignored. My hope is they won't ignore this one, too.”

        Mr. Walton said he will hammer home that point in the coming weeks when he begins disciplinary proceedings against officers who failed to carry out court orders.

        He said he will review the case files of all 40 officers who were audited last week by Judge Martin. A few officers did all the tests, most did less than half and some did almost none.

        “Several will be commended for doing an excellent job,” Mr. Walton said. “Others will be asked to explain to me why they did poorly.”

        He said his preliminary review of the audit suggests the officers probably will not be fired, but several could face suspensions.

        He said discipline is justified because it's the officers' job to make sure felons are following the rules of probation. The judges rely on the officers to help them determine whether a felon should go to jail or remain free on probation.

        Judge Robert Kraft said he hopes many of the probation department's problems will be cleared up when the judges hire a new chief probation officer. The former chief, Michael Snowden, resigned in July after a dispute with his officers.

        The officers had complained to the judges about changes Mr. Snowden was making in the department, including the hiring of a consulting firm to conduct audits.

        “Hopefully this will all resolve itself if and when we find a new chief probation officer,” Judge Kraft said.

        To date, four people have applied for the job.

       



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