SC probation agency’s request for $2M probed

abeam@thestate.comMay 14, 2013 

— The state probation agency’s bid to get an extra $2 million to hire 33 more agents is running aground.

A soon-to-be released audit of the Department of Probation, Pardon and Parole shows the agency has at least $12.5 million in money to spend and a number of positions that have not been filled, according to state Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, who has seen a summary of the audit.

Now, the Senate Finance Committee has denied the agency’s $2 million request, and the House – which previously approved the request, endorsed by the governor – could do the same.

“They have the money. I don’t know why they are not spending it,” said state Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, chairman of the Senate Finance subcommittee that oversees the department’s budget.

In the House, when Pitts asked agency officials if they had any vacant positions or extra money, officials answered no to both questions. Now, after reading a summary of the pending audit, Pitts said, “It appears those two answers were not correct.”

“I don’t know that they intentionally misled me or if there was confusion within the department,” Pitts said. “If you’ve got a number of unfilled slots, we don’t need to be giving you new slots until you fill out the ones you had.”

South Carolina’s prison population is decreasing and the number of criminals on probation is increasing. That’s why the agency, which supervises people on probation, says it asked state lawmakers for an extra $2 million to hire 33 more agents.

Department of Probation, Pardon and Parole officials say the agency has $12.5 million in “carry-forward” money, money left over from previous budget years. But they say all of that money is set aside for other things, including upgrades to the department’s computer security system following the cyber attack at the state Department of Revenue last year.

Officials add the vacant positions are not because the agency is not hiring but because employees hired left for other jobs. In 2011, the agency hired 34 employees and lost 44. Last year, the agency hired 58 new workers and lost 42. Overall, the agency is down about 300 employees since its peak 10 years ago, spokesman Pete O’Boyle said.

Agency officials also say it is bad policy to hire new employees using carry-forward money, which fluctuates from year to year.

“I would never go before a body of the Legislature and ask for something I don’t need,” said Probation director Kela Thomas. “We only ask for what we need.”

Thomas said she needs the money to hire new agents because of a 2010 law that changed how criminals are punished.

The law, among other things, stopped the probation agency from sending criminals back to jail as punishment for minor probation violations – like not paying supervision fees. The agency says that and other changes have added 1,409 more offenders to its caseload in two years.

But Gov. Nikki Haley’s office said the agency, which reports to the governor, may not need the extra money it requested and the governor endorsed.

“With vacancies occurring at a higher-than-anticipated rate, the agency may require fewer recurring funds than originally proposed,” said Rob Godfrey, Haley’s spokesman. “But as we work toward sentencing reform and expanding community-based corrections efforts, we’ll revisit the agency’s needs for next year’s executive budget.”

The audit, conducted by the Legislative Audit Council, is in the review process. O’Boyle said the probation agency has responded to the audit’s findings and is waiting to hear back from auditors.

The budget request could become an issue this week as the Senate debates the $22 billion spending plan for the state’s budget year that begins July 1. That budget includes $6.9 billion in general fund money, made up primarily of income and sales taxes.

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