Md. inmates stay in prison longer But parole violators often get leniency PAROLE: DECIDING WHO GOES FREE

November 14, 1993|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Staff Writer

Maryland prisoners wait longer to be paroled than criminals in many states, but once free, their transgressions often are treated more leniently.

The Maryland Parole Commission is less likely than commissions in many states to reincarcerate a parolee who breaks the rules of his early release, such as by failing to meet with his agent or complete drug treatment.

In 1991, 43 percent of the 63,300 parole violators returned to prisons across the country had broken rules, compared with less than 24 percent of an estimated 1,422 in Maryland, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The rest had committed new crimes.

Besides meeting with agents, Maryland parolees must: work regularly, notify an agent if arrested, avoid weapons and drugs, obey all laws, and get permission before moving, changing jobs or leaving Maryland. A parolee who breaks any of these conditions, short of committing a new crime, is called a "technical violator."

Maryland may return fewer technical violators to prison because its top public safety official, Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services Bishop L. Robinson, believes most rule violations are not serious.

"The majority of your technical violations are not serious because they're temporary: 'I failed to get treatment, I failed to show up, I had a dirty urine [positive test for drugs]' -- that's a technical," Mr. Robinson said.

The one exception is the parolee who absconds from authorities, he said. That aside, he said, why fill up costly prison beds with paroled burglars who took drugs or missed appointments -- why not use those beds for more dangerous offenders?

It's a compelling argument in a state where prison crowding is a fact of life and parole is so much cheaper for the taxpayer than incarceration. It's especially compelling if one believes technical violations are not a harbinger of crime.

"The conventional wisdom is that technical violations are a precursor to criminal behavior, but if you talk to parole officers, they will tell you it's a very mixed bag," said Peggy Burke, a senior associate at the Center for Effective Public Policy in Washington. "There is very, very little good empirical research on the subject."

Still, states that fail to enforce the rules strictly may be sending the wrong message, said Mario A. Paparozzi, an officer of the American Probation and Parole Association. "If you don't enforce them, then why are they there? You have just taught the parolee that rules don't mean anything, which is the exact opposite of what you want to teach someone with anti-social behavior."

The Maryland Parole Commission returned more technical violators to prison from July 1991 to July 1992 than in calendar year 1991, according to its own data. Thirty-six percent of the 1,424 returned were technical violators. The rest had committed new crimes.

In the July 1991-July 1992 period, the commission reincarcerated 75 percent of the 1,215 parolees who committed new crimes while the rest remained free.

Overall, a third of the parolees who have violated their parole in any way remain free, compared with none to 5 percent in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Kentucky, California and New York.

Commission Chairman Paul J. Davis said his colleagues may be more likely to give a parolee a second chance than commissioners in other states because the Maryland parolee has served more of his sentence and has been chosen more !B carefully. Unlike Maryland, he said, some states use parole primarily to relieve prison crowding.

The average inmate nationally serves one-third of his sentence, compared with 60 percent in Maryland.

Norman N. Yankellow, a public defender who represents accused parole violators, said Maryland should be praised for its willingness to give some parolees another chance.

"Punishment is not the be-all and end-all. Maybe the state of Maryland believes that the carrot-and-stick approach of parole still works."

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