'Last chance' program queried Some offenders commit new crimes while in special unit

February 18, 1997|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Chinor Allan Coleman Jr. started his adult criminal career early -- shooting at four police officers at the age of 16 in 1994. He has since been charged with beating a young man into a coma, destroying a woman's porch when she would not let him in at 2 a.m., selling crack cocaine from a basketball court and stealing a car.

Despite those repeated tangles with the law, authorities permitted Coleman to remain in the community as part of an unusual Baltimore court program intended to supervise criminals intensively.

The 8-year-old program, called the Alternative Sentencing Unit, is to be "a last-chance ranch," in the words of one judge, before a criminal goes to prison. But in fact, some of the offenders -- a group that includes child abusers, robbers and a handful of killers along with drug addicts and thieves -- are getting more chances to get into trouble without being thrown out of the program.

Bishop L. Robinson, secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which runs the program, said last week that he had sent his inspector general to audit the program because of questions raised about its management by The Sun. However, he said: "I have confidence in the judges' decision-making in this program."

Court records do show that the great majority of criminals in the program have not been arrested since being placed in it -- a sign of success, program officials assert. And judges who use it express confidence that the program is run well. "I am satisfied that it's working, because I have had such good success with some of my defendants," said Mary Ellen T. Rinehardt, administrative judge of the Baltimore District Court.

But the program's philosophy is to supervise and treat intensively a population that would otherwise go to prison, making it important that new charges also be closely monitored -- and, when needed, action taken to protect the public, proponents say. Yet judges who commit the offenders to the program have not always been told of new arrests -- information that could help them take people like Coleman off the street.

Four other cases

Consider the cases of four other people who remain in the program: Sabrina Harris, 21, was placed in the program in April 1995 after she was convicted of injuring her 3 1/2 -month-old daughter, Octavia, who had a fractured skull, fractured ribs and bruises on her back. Harris was arrested again in November 1996 on two more counts of child abuse and two counts of second-degree assault of her daughter and 4-year-old son. Harris, who allegedly told police that she disciplined her children with a rubber slipper, is scheduled for trial this week. The judge who put her in the alternative sentencing unit, Roger W. Brown, said he did not recall being told about the new arrest.

Shemare Nathaniel, 19, in the program since July 1996, was charged with carjacking and theft Jan. 28. District Judge Charlotte M. Cooksey, who sentenced him to the original probation, was not told about the new charge.

George R. Kearney II, 23, has been charged with battery, resisting arrest, malicious destruction and drug dealing in four cases since joining the program in December 1995. An agent requested last week that Kearney's probation be canceled because of other problems, according to the program's administrator.

Reginald Lamont Pierce, 24, sentenced to the program in August 1995 after being convicted in the scalding of his baby daughter Ravenne, has since been charged in three separate felony theft cases. He was convicted Jan. 27 of one of them and sentenced to two years in prison; he awaits trial on the other charges. A request to revoke his probation was being prepared last week.

There are other examples. The Sun examined the cases of all 152 people in the program as of late January and found that 18 percent -- 27 -- had been arrested for new crimes since being sentenced to the unit, some more than once. And in a number of those cases, there was no indication of the new charges in the official court file. That's contrary to the usual practice: The unit sends written documentation of felonies, violent misdemeanors and multiple arrests, and the judges place a copy there.

Coleman's case folder at the unit could not be found. "No comment," said Leonard A. Sipes, a spokesman for Robinson, when asked whether it had been lost. Alternative Sentencing Unit administrator Thomas E. Kirk said that a request for a warrant to cancel Coleman's probation was "in process" last week. Although the attempted murder charge against Coleman ultimately was tabled, he awaits trial on the others.

Kirk conceded that some improvements are needed, though he said his staff was generally doing a good job.

'Tighten it up'

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