Offender program changes ordered Sentencing unit supervises criminals in community setting

February 21, 1997|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Maryland's top prison official ordered yesterday immediate improvement in an unusual Baltimore court program that supervises criminals in the community, after a newspaper report showed some offenders were remaining in the program even after being charged with new crimes.

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. Its ranks include child abusers, robbers and a handful of killers along with nonviolent drug addicts and thieves who are sentenced to unusually strict probation, often accompanied by mandatory drug treatment.

Bishop L. Robinson, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which pays for the program, ,, said yesterday he had ordered the unit to notify judges who sentence offenders to it of any new charges those offenders face while in the community. That's more information than the judges were getting under the program's old policies, which did not require them to be told of nonviolent misdemeanor arrests before conviction.

"We have experienced some difficulties" with the program, Robinson told legislators yesterday at a House subcommittee budget hearing in Annapolis. "We have now moved very swiftly to make sure all judges who sentence people to the Alternative Sentencing Unit are notified of any arrests in writing."

While telling legislators the unit is a "good program" that should be continued, Robinson said his action was only his first step in improving it. He ordered the unit audited by his inspector general in the face of questions about management. That audit should be finished in about a week, he said.

Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who is chairman of the subcommittee that reviews Robinson's budget, said he eagerly awaits the report. He said he also wanted to see more precise criteria on who can be sentenced to the program.

"We expect to have this entire program scrutinized and tightened because of concern about lack of oversight," Franchot said.

The new procedures were outlined in a letter to Alternative Sentencing Unit administrator Thomas E. Kirk from his boss, LaMont W. Flanagan, commissioner of pretrial detention and services.

"The documentation of client activity, especially that which impacts upon public safety, is essential to the integrity of ASU operations," Flanagan wrote.

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 after being sentenced to the unit, some more than once. Judges who commit the offenders to the program have not always been told of new arrests, information that might lead them to put the offenders in prison.

In a few cases, Kirk said, the judges were not told of new charges when they should have been. In a number of others, while no report of the new arrest was in the court file, the judge or a member of his staff was told verbally, Kirk said.

Judges who use the program expressed confidence in it, saying they generally were satisfied with notification procedures. But Robinson said he thought providing extra information about the unit's participants was essential.

"The judge needs to know the events which take place by people in the community under supervision," the secretary said. "I think it's important for them to know. Whether it then warrants any action is something else."

Pub Date: 2/21/97

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