New parole agency chief sees 'a time bomb' 2,092 violent offenders on probation or parole left unsupervised Marina Sarris

August 29, 1993|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Staff Writer

Two thousand people convicted of violent or serious crimes are free on parole and probation in Maryland but are being virtually ignored by the authorities charged with supervising them, according to documents obtained by The Sun.

In an internal memo, the state's new chief of parole and probation, Nancy J. Nowak, called the situation "a time bomb."

Altogether, more than 8,000 people on parole and probation receive virtually no supervision under policies devised in recent years to assign priority to cases and cope with understaffing. The goal was to focus attention on the most dangerous offenders while leaving the least risky ones essentially unsupervised.

But a recent review by a top aide to Ms. Nowak found that 2,092 of the unsupervised offenders had originally been convicted of a crime that the state considers "violent" -- a category that includes murder, robbery, rape, arson, daytime housebreaking,

manslaughter, kidnapping, certain sexual offenses, burglary and attempts to commit those crimes. Such offenders "arguably belong [under] intensive supervision," Executive Assistant Director Donald Atkinson wrote Ms. Nowak on July 20.

He did not provide any breakdown by offense.

In an interview after The Sun obtained a copy of Mr. Atkinson's memo, Ms. Nowak said she did not yet have any data to suggest that all 2,092 offenders needed supervision.

But she has ordered her staff to investigate a sample of those cases to find out exactly how they ended up in the unsupervised category and whether they belong there, she said.

The research, which she called a "top priority," may take weeks because it will involve manually sorting through file folders in offices across the state.

She said she could not provide further information about the 2,092 cases, such as how many involved convicted killers or how they were split between parolees and probationers.

People on parole have been released early from prison, while those on probation were in effect sentenced by a judge to a period of supervision in the community.

But it is clear that the list included at least two paroled murderers. Two men charged in the so-called "murderers' row" drug ring -- five paroled murderers arrested in May during drug raids in the Baltimore area -- were unsupervised, The Sun has learned.

As part of her investigation, Ms. Nowak is studying the current system for dividing parolees and probationers into three classifications -- high risk, medium risk and low risk to public safety.

Agents meet with high-risk offenders most frequently, encouraging them to work or attend school, obey the law, pay court-ordered fees and receive treatment for any drug or alcohol addictions.

Offenders who don't do those things can be sent to jail.

The ones who are successful over a period of time graduate to lower levels of supervision. The 2,092 offenders described in Mr. Atkinson's memo are classified as low risk. Maryland is one of a few states that include such a category in their classification systems.

Several years ago, in an attempt to focus attention on the most serious cases, officials capped the number of high- and medium-risk cases that an agent could handle at 50 and 150, respectively. If an agent exceeds a cap, he or she is supposed to downgrade cases or transfer the surplus to a colleague.

During the 1991 state budget crisis, the agency suffered a cut that left it without enough agents to monitor cases classified as low-risk. Those cases were shipped, by the carton, to several dozen supervisors, who essentially abandoned all pretense of overseeing them.

Last year, the Maryland Classified Employees Association filed a grievance on behalf of 25 supervisors. The union claimed that its members could not properly oversee the 8,000 low-risk cases -- which represent 16 percent of the parole and probation division's total active caseload -- while at the same time supervising the agents. Administrative Law Judge Cornelia Bright Gordon agreed.

In her ruling in April, she wrote that the low-risk category was being used as "a dumping ground for excess cases."

Those cases "purportedly" involved offenders who posed little danger, she wrote, but "the large number of cases . . . contained grave risks and public safety issues which have not been properly managed."

Ms. Gordon agreed with the union that the supervisors $l "physically cannot accomplish all assigned tasks within a work day, even when consistently working overtime."

But she ultimately ruled in favor of management, saying she did not have the authority to reduce the supervisors' workload. The union is appealing.

In his memo, Mr. Atkinson recommended that the division seek $1.4 million to hire more than 40 additional agents who would intensively oversee the riskier cases.

Ms. Nowak declined to comment on that recommendation.

She said she is considering a possible remedy that could free up supervisors and improve the oversight of low-risk cases.

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