Community service cut from city court system

December 08, 1992|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer

Earllen Rowe was enraged when her daughter's killer was ordered to perform community service in lieu of prison time. Now, with the news that budget cuts will claim the community service program in Baltimore, she's even angrier.

"Enraged is not the word," said Ms. Rowe, who wonders whether her daughter's killer will now go to prison or get off scot-free. "This girl has never paid for killing my daughter. The community service is one small way she had to pay for it, and now they're going to take that away.

"I've been cut short and slapped in the face," Ms. Rowe said yesterday.

Community service is used throughout the state as a way to put criminals, usually misdemeanor offenders, to work instead of behind bars. It has given judges flexibility in fashioning sentences, and it has provided so many hours of free manpower for government agencies and charitable organizations that some say it has more than paid for itself. It has been cited by the governor as a solution to the prison population crisis.

Despite all that, the community service program will be shut down in Baltimore in January, a victim of budget cuts that have followed reductions in state aid to the city. Joseph H. H. Kaplan, administrative judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court, said he had no choice.

A previous round of cuts had already forced him to pare his $6.6 million budget to $6.3 million when the order came from the mayor's office to cut another $159,000. The judge balked, saying more cuts would endanger public safety, but the city said they'd do the cutting if he didn't.

After meeting with judges last month, Judge Kaplan decided the community service program would have to go. He says he didn't have many options. Some of his expenditures, such as paying jurors, are mandated by law. Make cuts in other areas, such as in court stenographers or in the medical office that issues psychiatric reports in criminal and custody cases, and the courts would grind to a halt.

"Community service is an adjunct. It's an alternative sentencing device. But I can operate without it, and I can't operate without the other things," Judge Kaplan said yesterday.

The program has an annual budget of $260,000. By eliminating it on Jan. 4, the city will save $89,979 in the rest of the fiscal year that ends June 30. (The rest of the $159,000 in cuts was made up by holding a job in the medical division vacant and by a court ruling that the city had been incorrectly billed for its contributions to the pensions of two Circuit Court masters.)

With the savings in the community service program come costs, Judge Kaplan says. The courts will be further backlogged as the program's 2,100 "clients" are referred back for sentencing. Some of them will go into an already crowded correctional system.

In fiscal 1991, the city saved about $476,000 in labor because of the program, according to Judge Kaplan. Linda K. Parrott, who will lose her $31,000 a year job as the program's director, said the clients clean schools and parks and remove snow, among other jobs. "It's real, actual work that's being performed in the city," she said.

Judge Kaplan also pointed to letters written by private, charitable groups who have benefited from the program and are calling for it to be maintained.

The seven employees who administered the program, including Ms. Parrott, will be laid off.

Judge Kaplan complained that he has been asked to make cuts that are insignificant in the schemes of the city and state budgets but that are devastating to the courts. And he predicted the state's already overburdened parole and probation division may have to take over the city's community service program.

In other words, cuts made in response to reductions in state aid may be made up by the state.

All Ms. Rowe knows is that her daughter's killer, who received a 20-year suspended sentence and five years' probation, may be getting out of a punishment she already considered too light. She says she has written to Judge Kaplan and to Judge Kenneth Lavon Johnson, asking that 21-year-old Shonte Davenport, who in May pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, be sentenced to weekends in jail if she doesn't have to perform 10 hours of community service a week for the next five years.

She was told officials would try to "speed up" Davenport's remaining years of community service before the program is to expire.

"How can they speed up five years in one month?" Ms. Rowe wants to know. "That's ridiculous."

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