January 04, 1994|By MARK MILLER

Ross -- not his real name -- reports in and tells me, his parole officer, all about it. He's been on parole since the late 1980s for auto theft and recently got arrested for another auto theft and an assault. It was during his arrest for the latter, he says, that police served him with an outstanding warrant for the former.

Ross admits to the assault but can't understand the theft charge. After all, he did return the vehicle to the dealership after they had let him test-drive it. OK, so he was a few hours late, but he had personal errands to run and didn't think the dealer would mind.

Ross is no dummy. On the contrary, he's very bright and articulate, a classic manipulator and would-be charmer that veteran agents can spot faster than any judge or jury can say not guilty by reason of insanity. He's the flip side of the guy we're talking about when we say ''if so and so had brains he'd be dangerous.'' Ross has plenty of brains and I suspect he can be plenty dangerous.

He's got a rap sheet of theft and armed-robbery offenses stretching back over 25 years, and he was recently investigated for murder. Years ago, a grand jury indicted him for murder, but prosecutors dropped the charge after a key witness died accidentally. Ross is the multi-recidivist, the repeat offender our society has railed against for years, the career criminal who commits another crime almost as soon as we let him back out.

So Ross is telling me about the two pending charges -- actually three, because he was arrested in late 1992 for another auto theft that's also pending -- as if they were nothing to be concerned about, as if they'll be dropped or nolle prossed and he'll be cleared. And I'm watching him work, listening to his every word, admiring the neatly formed sentences, the well-placed verbs and adjectives, the nearly perfect syntax and clipped pronunciation. Instead of stealing cars, this guy should be selling them, I'm thinking, doing my best to mask both my grudging admiration and my contempt, and also my fear of what this man is capable of doing, of what he might already have done.

I ask for a pay stub to verify his alleged employment. He forgot it, he says, but he'll bring it next week along with his charge papers. And he probably will. Ross and clients like him are flawless reporters, lest agents have cause to cite them for failing to report as they collect subsequent charges.

After he leaves, I write a report to the Parole Commission, informing them of the recent charges, deferring any action to them. I then thumb through the pages of his massive rap sheet and ask what any other angry, law-abiding citizen would ask if he saw it: Why is this man still on the street?

Of course, I know the answer: One, there's not enough bed space in our prisons to keep people like Ross locked up for the duration of their sentences; and two, corrections hasn't completely given up on the idea of rehabilitation, of defendants turning their lives around while being supervised on the street.

Some do ''go straight,'' and street supervision is a lot less costly to taxpayers, so long as the offender doesn't re-offend. But the Rosses of the world do, over and over, and nobody's figured out a way to stop them, a way to shut their revolving door of anti-social behavior for good. Not correctional officials, and certainly not we parole and probation agents who are sick and tired of dealing with cases like Ross'.

Mark Miller writes from Baltimore.

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