Thursday, September 21, 2000

Drug test probe expands




By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Municipal Court judges in Hamilton County launched an investigation Wednesday into whether probation officers are ignoring orders to conduct drug tests on criminals.

        Previous investigations already have found that officers failed to do hundreds of the tests in Common Pleas Court, potentially allowing felons to use drugs while on probation.

        The order to expand the probe came as dozens of drug offenders packed the probation department Wednesday afternoon to make up missed tests.

        At one point, sheriff's deputies were called in to handle the crowd.

        The municipal judges say concern about the missed tests in Common Pleas Court prompted them to ask for a similar review of cases in their courts.

        They say they expect the investigation to find that their probation officers do a much better job keeping up with the mandatory urine tests.

        “It looks like we're on top of things,” said Larry Muse, an assistant chief probation officer. “But the judges want to make sure they don't have the same problem as com mon pleas.”

        Mr. Muse, who oversees the Municipal Court officers, said the new investigation will involve hundreds of cases and all 14 municipal courtrooms.

        He said he's confident the audit will find few problems because the cases already are audited at least twice a year.

        “We check them every six months or so,” Mr. Muse said. “Usually it's good news.”

        But in Common Pleas Court, which handles the most serious offenders, regular audits are not done and the problems with drug testing are widespread.

        Audits of common pleas officers were supposed to begin last year but have been delayed repeatedly.

        “That's been part of our downfall,” said Tim Shannon, the assistant probation chief who oversees common pleas officers. “We've not been able to get that kind of program going in common pleas.”

        Although staff shortages caused some of the delays, Mr. Shannon conceded the audits should have been a higher priority. “That's fundamentally my fault,” he said. “We haven't been able to get it done.”

        He said the problem with drug testing was identified last year when former Chief Probation Officer Michael Snowden did an audit that found hundreds of missed tests.

        Mr. Snowden's audit focused on the roughly 50 officers assigned to Common Pleas Court. About another 50 are assigned to Municipal Court.

        Some officers did only about half their tests, while a few did almost none. Mr. Snowden resigned two months ago after a dispute with his officers over changes he was making in the department.

        “This is what we were trying to clean up,” Mr. Snowden said of the drug tests. “Unfortunately, once we started cleaning, we didn't get support.”

        More bad news came last week when Common Pleas Judge Steven Martin launched an audit of his own drug cases and found “major problems” with almost all of them.

        Despite the dismal record in Common Pleas Court, the municipal judges are optimistic about what they will find when the investigation expands to include their cases.

        “We're hoping we'll be in good shape,” said Municipal Judge Karla Grady. “But we're reading in the paper about all these problems and we want to make sure we don't have them, too.”

        The results of the drug tests are important because they often determine whether judges send offenders to jail or allow them to remain free on probation.

        Typically, judges tell probation officers to schedule random tests every few weeks. A private firm collects the urine samples and a county lab does the tests.

        The uproar over the missed tests has prompted common pleas officers to schedule many more tests than usual this week, which in turn has led to big crowds at the probation department.

        “The officers are becoming acutely aware of their (testing) schedules,” Mr. Shannon said.

        He said many of the offenders had never been called in for a random test before this week. In the past, he said, they gave a urine sample when they visited their probation officer once a month.

        “Needless to say, there's a lot of unhappy people here,” said Mr. Shannon, who watched the crowds line up most of the afternoon. “There's a lot of muttering from the probationers.”

        Adding to their misery, Mr. Shannon said, was the long wait to get in. “Some came in with full bladders, ready to go,” he said. “And we had to make them wait a half hour.”

        More than 560 offenders already have been tested this week, a few dozen more than usual. If the pace keeps up, Mr. Shannon said, 100 more tests than usual will be done this week.

- Drug test probe expands
Enquirer editorial
       



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