GREAT FALLS — After Great Falls police officers spent months tracking down a convict accused of stealing a woman’s mobile phone and pizza, attempting a drug deal, and resisting arrest, the town’s police chief wants every criminal who violates probation to be sent to jail.
But probation officials say doing so would violate the offenders’ due process rights and hamper legislative efforts to punish more-serious violent offenders while rehabilitating those convicted of less-threatening crimes.
Desmar Denzel Anderson, 23, led police in Great Falls on chases through woods and creeks, ran from his probation agent and climbed a privacy fence to avoid arrest, police documents show.
He remained at-large until last month when Great Falls police, Chester County Sheriff’s deputies and the State Law Enforcement Division’s fugitive team found him hiding in his grandmother’s closet.
Great Falls Police Chief Steven Rice says Anderson, “a nuisance to the community,” never should have been out on probation risking the safety of the police officers chasing him and residents unaware of the potential danger.
“(He’s) one of those people you just never know how aggressive he may be,” Rice said. “Having him run through our community is a safety risk.”
In 2010, police charged Anderson with attempted murder after he shot a woman in her face, Rice said. A year later, he pleaded guilty to assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature, a felony carrying up to a 20-year prison sentence, court records show.
He was sentenced to two years in prison, suspended to two years of probation.
Criminals often receive probation as part of their sentences. Some only receive probation while others are sentenced to prison and, after being released, serve probation.
Anyone on probation usually must follow specific guidelines, such as reporting to a probation officer or paying restitution to victims.
Anderson, while on probation, had been charged with giving false information to police, using another person’s driver’s license, public disorderly conduct and criminal domestic violence, according to records with the State Law Enforcement Division. He was not convicted of those charges, and they are no longer pending, according to the SLED records.
Police last December charged him with two counts of forgery. That case is still pending.
Earlier this year, Anderson stopped reporting to his probation officer and failed to inform the agent of his run-ins with law enforcement, Rice said.
He was given “absconder” status, which is applied to offenders on probation who routinely fail to report to their probation officer and can’t be reached when agents conduct home and phone checks, said Peter O’Boyle, spokesman for the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.
“That ought to be an automatic revocation and they go back to jail,” Rice said.
According to probation officials, it’s not “automatic,” but it is possible.
Once offenders who abscond are found, they go before a judge who decides if their probation should be revoked, said Clift Howle, the state probation department’s assistant deputy director of field operations.
People on probation still face restrictions, said state Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, who also chairs the House Judiciary Committee. “You have to check in with that office, you have random drug screens. If you do something out on the street while out on probation, your probation officer violates your probation, they put you in jail and they put you in prison.”
Alternatives to prison are necessary, said Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, because “we can’t possibly incarcerate everybody.”
Anderson sits in the Chester County Detention Center on an $18,000 bond. His charges include: three counts of resisting arrest, two counts of petty larceny, two counts of failure to comply with police, one count of malicious injury to property and one count of loitering to engage in drug activity.
A judge will decide if his probation should be revoked. If revocation is not recommended, Anderson’s probation officer could ask the judge to impose additional sanctions, such as home detention, intensive supervision or no contact with certain people.
Police had been searching for Anderson since February after a Great Falls police officer disrupted a possible drug deal between Anderson and another man, according to a police report. Police issued a warrant for Anderson for resisting arrest.
They issued three more after he ran from officers several times during the next several months, including at least two times after he was shot with a Taser. His probation officer searched for him when he stopped reporting.
Anderson showed up on police radar again last month when a sheriff’s narcotics agent spotted him at a bar after police were called to a large fight. He got away again, and so Rice recruited SLED’s fugitive team and sheriff’s deputies to track him down.
They found him July 26 hiding in a closet in his grandmother’s bedroom. Once in custody, Anderson’s probation agent charged him with violating his probation.
“We have been following that case closely and we have been in touch with our agents in the county about it, and they did everything according to policy,” said Jodi Gallman, executive director of programs for the state’s probation department.
But Rice said probation officials should have had “consistent involvement” in performing “in-the-field” home visits on Anderson, instead of relying on him to report to the administrative office once a month.
“I think more home visits would be appropriate for all probationers, but specifically those with charges that are considered violent,” he said.
The frequency of home visits depends on each offenders’ level of supervision, which is determined by the agent, O’Boyle said.
“Someone on intensive (probation) could get several visits a month,” he said. An offender on low-level supervision who owes fees, restitution and makes his office visits regularly would only get an occasional home visit.
Probation “is a second chance,” Gallman said. “The courts say you are not considered a total risk to the safety of the community. They give you an opportunity to be in the community and try to work on things that got you in the courts in the first place.”
When offenders abscond, field agents, she said, go to their homes, keep in touch with police and jailors, speak with employers and family members, and search on social media, she said.
“We just don’t put them in absconding status and leave them there,” she said.
With less agents in the field, probation officers depend on partnerships with police, social services agencies and other county probation offices to find absconders, she said.
Nearly 4,800 offenders absconded statewide during the first six months of this year. Twenty-eight of those offenders were from Chester County; 56 were from Lancaster County; and 209 were from York County.
“In any case, you can’t watch any offender, no matter what size your caseload is, 24/7,” Gallman said.
‘Everybody has rights’
Rice has issues with a criminal justice system that puts “people like (Anderson) right back into our community for other people to be victimized over and over again. They’re convicted, but they still have their freedom.”
In 2010, lawmakers enacted sentencing reform that stopped officials from putting offenders back in prison if they violated minor probation rules. Those offenders receive access to rehabilitative programs and resources. Offenders with major violations, such as committing a violent crime, receive harsher penalties and stand to lose their probation.
“The first time they offend, they should go back to prison,” Rice said, adding that the type of people who menace communities are not the murderers or major drug traffickers.
“It’s the little, small guys...the misdemeanor guys,” he said.
“If a probation officer thinks someone absolutely did commit another violent crime, I don’t know a probation officer anywhere that doesn’t file a warrant” for that offender’s arrest,” said Delleney, the Chester County state representative.
Probation agents can’t alter an offender’s supervision if they are accused of another crime. Change to their probation status doesn’t come until there’s a conviction or plea, Gallman said.
“Everybody has rights and they are, under our laws, entitled to due process,” she said. “We can’t pre-judge the disposition in that case and treat that person accordingly...you can get arrested for anything, but it’s what you plead guilty to that’s going to make the difference.”
Probation agents can launch their own investigations and issue community safety warrants if offenders are charged with a violent crime that might endanger others, Howle said. The offender appears before a judge to determine his probationary status even before the outcome of a criminal case.
A court conviction is always considered a probation violation, Gallman said, and requires a hearing to determine for a judge to decide whether to revoke the offenders’ current probation.
Last year, more than 4,000 offenders in the state who were on probation faced new convictions. Thirty-four of those offenders were in Chester County; 86 were in Lancaster County; and 208 were in York County.
Probation officials held 3,645 violation hearings in 2012. Of those, officials decided in 2,391 cases that probation services should be continued, while services were revoked or recommended for revocation in 1,254 cases.
• In York County, 63 cases were heard; probation was continued in 34;
• Nine cases were heard in Chester County, three of them were continued and six were recommended for revocation;
• Officials heard 47 cases in Lancaster County, 31 of which were continued and 16 were recommended for revocation.
Deciding who goes to prison and who goes to jail becomes difficult for judges who know the cost of keeping an inmate in jail in a state with a growing prison population and little room, said Pope, a York County state representative and former York County solicitor.
It costs about $17,000 a year to keep one inmate in prison. It costs about $1,000 to keep one offender on probation. Currently, about 30,000 offenders are on probation statewide.
“It’s a numbers game,” Rice said. “The state is cutting its funding for these departments. Therefore, it’s reducing their resources; therefore they can’t do home visits, follow-ups,” leaving offenders free to roam and police to “go back to work and continue to do the same thing again.”
“The state is taxing the local resources to have (us) babysit these people for them,” he said. “It wears thin on a small department like Great Falls,” which comprises six full-time officers, one part-time officer and two reserve officers in a town of less than 2,000.
Judges meting out sentences have to consider violence and predict “future behavior,” Pope said. “It’s a lot easier to Monday morning quarterback it than it is to predict behavior.”
Rice said he’s aware of budget constraints and staffing reductions. Still, “the first time they offend (again), they should go back to prison,” he said.
“It has been ingrained in them that they can offend and break the rules several times,” he said. “They break it routinely and nothing happens.”
Rice said he told probation officials last week he wanted more home visits for offenders, specifically ones he knows are violent. Officials said they wanted the same, but needed more manpower and money to do it.
Since 2003, probation officials reported losing about 300 employees.
The number of probation agents available to supervise offenders has fallen during the last decade. As of June 30 this year, three agents worked in Chester County, five worked in Lancaster County and 16 covered York County.
An average caseload is 93 offenders per agent, said Debbie Parker, department director of external affairs.
Currently, 386 agents supervise more than 30,000 offenders in the state. To adapt, Parker said the department is working to reduce individual agents’ caseloads and offer competitive salaries.
“We'd always love to have more positions allotted to us,” she said. “That's a matter of getting funding for it.”
Education, which Delleney said makes up 45 percent of the state budget, “gets fed first.”
“Any state agency...they’ll tell you they’re all running short of money,” he said. “There’s only so much money in South Carolina and every dollar you take out of the private sector...creates more taxes, so we have to be careful.
About probation, “I think they’re doing fine with what we give them.”
Lawmakers this year rejected the department’s $1.4 million request to hire 33 more agents. Last month, the state Legislative Audit Council released a report showing that the probation department used $3.8 million in state-allocated monies to expand its own cash reserves instead of hiring more staff as originally approved in sentencing reform legislation.
The department hired 92 new staff members between 2011 and 2012, but lost 86 employees at the same time.
The audit boiled down to a “dispute over whether we had been hiring people fast enough,” O’Boyle said. “We said it was due to the complicated process of hiring agents, vetting them, getting them approved and trained into county offices.”
Pope said legislators sometimes take a “piecemeal” approach when debating law enforcement budgets because there’s no “global criminal justice plan,” he said.
With a “finite” amount of tax money at their disposal, lawmakers determine where to focus the most funds.
“What I think happens...is putting more law enforcement officers on the street or more Highway Patrolmen on the road is probably more attractive to voters” than funding probation efforts.
“The probation department gets dealt a short hand because of those types of things,” he said.
Probation agents “do a heck of a lot with a heck of a little,” Pope said. “We need to make sure that when we’re making decisions, it’s even-handed.
“We’ve also got to make sure that if we’re going to have probation...then we’ve got to make sure we’re allocating the resources to allow those people to do their job,” he said.