Probation violations dominate dockets Huge caseload points to imperfect system

January 21, 1996|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,SUN STAFF

Every Tuesday and Thursday, one Ellicott City courtroom is jammed with convicted criminals looking for a third chance. They are charged with violating probation, a mistake that can jeopardize their second chance of avoiding jail. Most will leave with a lecture from the judge and a stern warning not to come back again -- or else.

There are more violations of probation -- VOPs, as they are called by lawyers -- than any other kind of cases on criminal dockets in Howard Circuit Court and circuit courts across the state.

Some defense attorneys say that's because judges place too many conditions on defendants' probations and that the time on probation is too long. But probation officers, called agents, complain that offenders flout the law and rarely are punished.

It's an imperfect system that hasn't changed much over the years.

David R. Comer is among those who went astray. In many ways, his case exemplifies the benefits and problems of probation.

The 23-year-old Baltimore County man was charged with driving while intoxicated after being stopped for going 30 mph faster than the speed limit in the 6200 block of Montgomery Road on Jan. 2, 1993. Riding shotgun was an open 40-ounce bottle of beer, according to court records.

Two years later, Mr. Comer was sentenced in Howard County to three years of probation. He was required to report to an alcohol program in Baltimore County, attend two Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week for 20 weeks and have the Motor Vehicle Administration place an alcohol restriction on his license.

One Tuesday last month, his was among the 65 cases -- most of them VOPs -- on Judge James B. Dudley's crowded docket. The probation agent, Carolyn Harrison, brought a list of Mr. Comer's transgressions to the judge.

She said he failed to report to her as required, and that he forged documents to make it appear that he attended AA meetings he missed in March, April and May.

Although Mr. Comer pleaded guilty to violation of probation, his lawyer, Leonard H. Shapiro, told the judge it was difficult for his client to attend AA meetings because he was depressed over losing custody of his daughter.

"He really just couldn't bear to sit there and listen to family woes when he was going through it himself," Mr. Shapiro said as Mr. Comer stood quietly.

Mr. Shapiro said that since violating probation, his client had worked hard to comply with the conditions of probation, attending AA meetings and getting the license restriction. "It's rare that someone violates probation in this fashion and turns it lTC around the way Mr. Comer has," the lawyer pleaded.

An important tool

Judge Dudley called the case a "mixed bag." On one hand, he said the violations were serious, but he commended Mr. Comer for improving his record. Scanning his courtroom, he said he still needed to send a message to other probationers who were watching.

That message was two weekends in jail for Mr. Comer.

In an interview later, Judge Dudley said probation sentences are an important tool in dispensing justice, giving offenders an opportunity to turn their lives around.

"It's not to impose a punishment but to secure future compliance with the law," said Judge Dudley, a former probation agent in Baltimore.

However, he said, it is virtually impossible to predict which offenders will comply.

"You could take the best doctors, lawyers, judges, psychiatrists, put them all together, and they will not be able to predict with any degree of reliability who will be coming back for violations," the judge said.

Overburdened agents

But Howard County Public Defender Carol A. Hanson said there would be fewer violations if judges imposed shorter periods of probation in some cases. She said most offenders on probation don't want to run the risk of jail or prison, and try hard to comply with the conditions placed on their release.

"I think the probation department really is overburdened," said Ms. Hanson, who has handled VOP cases for 15 years. "They don't have enough agents to supervise all the clients they have, and the clients don't get the kind of attention they need."

That shouldn't matter to offenders, said Mary V. Murphy, an assistant state's attorney. She said more probationers should be eager to comply if they are serious about their freedom.

"I don't think that it's unrealistic for a person convicted of a crime to follow the rules and regulations of the court," Ms. Murphy said. "These people are getting a break. They're not serving the maximum sentence they could have received. This is a chance to show the court that it's done the right thing."

Several of the 11 probation agents who work directly with offenders say the system doesn't act harshly enough with violators. They complain that some probationers blatantly disregard rules, at times making flimsy excuses for not keeping appointments, and still walk out of court.

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