Thursday, November 30, 2000

Probation officers to be disciplined

Several ignored judges' orders to conduct drug tests on criminals

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As many as a dozen Hamilton County probation officers face disciplinary action for failing to conduct court-ordered drug tests on criminals.

        Probation officials say they will recommend the action after completing a review of officer performance next month.

        Hamilton County judges, who oversee the probation department, will have the final say on whether to accept the recommendations.

        Although the review will go on for at least another two weeks, officials say they already have found problems with the performance of several probation officers and supervisors.

        The problems involve the failure to conduct random urine tests that would have revealed drug use by criminals on probation.

        Court Administrator Mike Walton, the acting chief probation officer, said he expects to recommend suspensions or reprimands in about a dozen cases. So far, he said, he has not found misconduct that warrants firing any officer.

        “There's no question some officers were not doing court-ordered urine tests as they should have,” Mr. Walton said.

        He said judges will get a report on his findings and recommendations in the next month or so.

        The review of officer performance began after audits found that hundreds of drug tests were not being conducted because probation officers failed to carry out court orders.

        The missed tests prompted the county's judges in September to overhaul the drug-testing system and to approve disciplinary hearings for officers who failed to perform the tests.

        The number of tests carried out each month has since jumped by more than 1,000, from 3,479 in September to 4,485 in October.

        “I think the probation officers have gotten the message that judges' orders simply must be followed,” said Common Pleas Judge Steven Martin, who found many problems when he audited drug cases in his court. “It's up to us as judges to make sure our orders continue to be followed.”

        Judge Martin would not discuss possible disciplinary action, saying only he would review Mr. Walton's recommendations. Judge Robert Kraft, the presiding judge in Common Pleas Court, said the recommendations would be reviewed by a committee of judges.

        “A complete report will be given on the officers' performance,” Judge Kraft said. “We'll have names and recommendations, and the committee will hopefully take action.”

        The tests are important to judges because they often rely on the results to determine whether someone should go to jail or remain free on probation.

        The recent performance review focused on the roughly 45 officers and supervisors who work in Common Pleas Court.

        Mr. Walton said most officers missed at least some drug tests. He said a few officers did every test, while some missed nearly all of them. He said he will seek commendations for the officers who fared best in the review.

        Mr. Walton said the new drug testing system should eliminate some of the problems because it requires everyone on probation to be tested on a similar schedule.

        The new system has, however, caused a few new problems. The probation department has been so swamped with people coming in to take drug tests that it routinely runs out of bathroom space.

        A new test location will be set up soon to handle the crowds. The number of tests each month could reach 6,000, Mr. Walton said.

        In addition to more drug tests, Judge Martin said he's noticed an increase in the number of probation violations reported to his court. He said that suggests officers are more closely monitoring those on probation, and catching those who break the law.

        “Our cases seem to be getting a lot more attention from probation officers now than they were a few months ago,” Judge Martin said.


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