Probation officers soon will give judges complete background reports.
By CURTIS KRUEGER
Published March 9, 2004
A month after the abduction and killing of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia, the state has decided to give judges more background information about criminals accused of violating the rules of probation.
Department of Corrections spokesman Sterling Ivey said starting next week probation officers will give judges complete state and nationwide criminal background reports on probationers who come before them.
The move will give courts "a total look at the individual's crimes," painting a fuller picture of whether probationers should be sent to prison or given second chances, Ivey said.
But in a move critics say is an attempt by DOC to insulate itself from controversy, the state also has ordered probation officers to stop giving judges written recommendations on whether individual offenders should be jailed, unless judges ask for their opinions.
"They don't want to in any way be held accountable for anything they're supposed to do," Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger said. "These are the people who are supposed to supervise and be familiar with the defendant, and they're just throwing it at the court, which has a few minutes to review it."
The DOC's decisions come as the Florida Legislature considers proposed changes to the state's probation system, intended to ensure offenders don't get away with breaking the rules.
People sentenced to probation are ordered to follow a set of rules, which often include regular drug testing, maintaining regular contact with authorities, keeping a job and not committing new crimes. Breaking any of those rules can mean going to prison.
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Joseph P. Smith, charged with murdering Carlie, was on probation for cocaine possession at the time of last month's crime.
Some friends of Carlie's family have said Smith should have been in jail. Smith had tested positive for drug use, but his probation was not revoked because he went into drug treatment. In December, he was written up for failing to pay court fees, but a judge said the law prevented him from revoking probation unless he saw evidence Smith had "willfully" refused to pay.
On Monday, Ivey said the DOC intends to send judges a complete Florida criminal history as well as a nationwide criminal background check with each report of probation violations. Judges often don't have such complete information at their disposal when deciding what to do about probation violators.
"That's what everyone wants to know ... we're actually going to be providing more information to the judges," Ivey said.
Ivey denied the department was trying to deflect criticism by deleting the "recommendations" section from a form that probation officers send to judges when offenders violate their probation.
"No, it's not the department's job to make those sentencing recommendations. We will do it if the judge requests us to," Ivey said.
Pinellas-Pasco Judge Lynn Tepper said it's possible this move by DOC could take political heat away from probation officers and focus it on judges.
"I think it's helpful (for probation officers) to give a recommendation," she said. "However, the reality is, we're the judges, we're supposed to make the decisions."
Also Monday, the DOC ordered its staff members to give everyone on probation and house arrest copies of a "zero tolerance notice."
The notice reminds offenders that "you are subject to violation proceedings, including arrest, if you are not in compliance with all conditions of supervision."