Probation terminated early, record cleared for $76,000 theft

If you are doing what you are supposed to be doing, the courts will try to work with you.” — Gary LeGros, public defender

The probation of a second woman claiming a gambling addiction that led her to steal tens of thousands of dollars in Berwick was terminated early and the record of her thefts ordered expunged, according to 16th Judicial District clerk of court records.
The three-year probation District Judge Charles Porter gave to former Berwick town employee Rhonda Ann Burtner, 56, for stealing $76,087 from Berwick recreational leagues was terminated on March 28, a year early, by Porter who also granted the motion of expungement, the records state. Burtner pleaded guilty to one count of theft of more than $1,500 on Dec. 8, 2011.
Berwick had no formal recreation department, so the liaison was a town employee who cooperated with citizen leagues in the area. Several sports leagues were under the purview of Burtner, Berwick’s recreation liaison.
Jennifer Reasoner, assistant district attorney, objected to the early termination and expungement order, according to the minutes of the court proceedings.
Burtner told the court at her 2012 sentencing that she had a gambling problem, but was receiving weekly counseling and had stayed 36 days at a Shreveport rehabilitation facility, according to transcripts of the proceedings.
In a separate case, former Berwick councilwoman Penny Crappell claimed a gambling addiction led her to steal almost $59,000 from an activity fund at Berwick Elementary.
Her five-year probation was terminated after 13 months on Dec. 13, 2013. Her arrest record and criminal proceedings were ordered expunged about two weeks ago after she met all the original terms of her probation, including restitution.
Burtner paid $79,087 in restitution, including the costs of a forensic audit, between the time of her plea and her sentencing three months later on March 14, 2012.
Because she made restitution and because of “extenuating and mitigating circumstances,” Porter deferred sentencing and placed Burtner on probation, the proceeding transcript states.
Terminating probation early is not infrequent, public defender Gary LeGros said. He said about half of probation modifications are moved from supervised to unsupervised and about the same number are actually terminated early.
“This is done all the time and is more likely with first-time offenders,” LeGros said. “If you are doing what you are supposed to be doing, the courts will try to work with you. This is something I have done and received for my indigent (poor) clients.”
In addition to restitution, the terms of Burtner’s probation called for her to perform 240 hours of community service in the first year of her probation and pay $2,050 in fines and court costs. She was also to attend Gamblers Anonymous, remain gainfully employed and remain drug and alcohol free.
In a Feb. 21 motion from Burtner's attorney to set aside the conviction and expunge the records, the court was told the conditions of the probation were met. The motion requested the destruction of law enforcement records of Burtner’s arrest, photograph and fingerprints.
Two goals of the justice system in non-violent crimes is to make the victim whole (restitution) and to assure the offender won’t offend again, LeGros said.
“Judges don’t take sentencing lightly,” LeGros said. “They take this stuff seriously.”
Burtner was facing a possible sentence of 10 years and a fine of up to $3,000 had she been convicted on the charge she faced.
The Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure allows a judge to terminate a felon’s probation after a year of probation if the felon successfully fulfilled all conditions of the probation. In a misdemeanor case, the court may terminate the defendant’s suspended sentence or probation at any time.
Probation and parole officers carry an average caseload of 138 felons they must oversee, some could have 200 cases to supervise, Pam Laborde, communications director for the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said.
With such a heavy caseload, probation officers look to utilize their time and resources on individuals who need help in becoming productive citizens and are inclined to consider recommending early termination of probation for non-violent offenders who appear to pose no danger to society through a repeated offense, she explained.
Laborde said in an email that Burtner’s attorney filed a request with the court.
“We did not receive notification of the (Burtner) hearing so the Probation and Parole Officer supervising the case did not have the opportunity to weigh in on the case. However, the New Iberia district administrator advised that based on the facts of Ms. Burtner’s case, we probably would not have opposed early termination, Laborde said in the email. “The judge makes the final determination on these probation cases.”
Laborde said Crappell “had complied with all the conditions ordered by the court and taking into consideration (several) factors..., the officer and his supervisor made the decision to ask for early termination.”
State Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, said alternative sentencing, not prison sentences, is often appropriate for non-violent crimes, especially in a state leading the nation in its rate of incarceration.
“Limited resources in our criminal system have to be prioritized,” Jones said.
State Sen. Bret Allain said something must be done to address the state’s high incarceration rate on a fiscal level as well as a moral level.
“With non-violent, non-sexual crimes we have to figure out a way to … get these people to become productive citizens, especially with the budgetary constraints the state is in,” Allain said.
Laborde said one of the ways to address the high caseload average, one of the highest in the south is to have officers “regularly review their caseloads to determine if an offender under probation supervision is eligible for early termination of their supervision. Conversely, officers are continually evaluating cases that also might require a higher level of supervision.”
Laborde explained that if a probation officer feels an offender meets guidelines for early termination, a supervisor would sign off on it before the officer petitions the court for termination, with the court making the final determination on the request.
"In cases where an officer is supervising a first-time, non-violent offender who has complied with all supervision requirements, it is becoming more common for that officer to seek termination so his/her time can be better directed toward those offenders that require more scrutiny," Laborde said. "This practice also in the best interest of Louisiana taxpayers. Furthermore, early termination of probation cases is extremely common across the country – it’s not a new concept, just one that the Department is encouraging more of in light of our supervision caseloads."

By PRESTON GILL pgill@daily-review.com

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