Judges seek court control of program State asked to drop supervisory role in Alternative Sentencing

Better service is goal

Ending dual oversight would help unit become 'model,'advocates say

March 30, 1997|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's top judges are asking to take "administrative and fiscal" control of the Alternative Sentencing Unit, an unusual court program that recently has come under scrutiny for its hiring practices and management of criminals in the community.

In a letter to Bishop L. Robinson, secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services, Joseph H. H. Kaplan, administrative judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court, and Mary Ellen T. Rinehardt, administrative judge of the Baltimore District Court, said such a change would enable them to make the unit "a model program on a state and federal level."

Started in 1989, the Alternative Sentencing Unit has operated as an unusual hybrid -- its policy controlled by an oversight committee of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and parole and probation officials, while its purse strings and executive chain of command rested with Robinson's department.

The dual oversight has created conflicts as state and federal officials begin trying to reform sentencing and drug treatment statewide.

Robinson recently ordered his inspector general to audit the program, and instituted changes after The Sun reported that some offenders were remaining in the program even after being charged several times with new crimes. Judges who commit the offenders to the program had not always been told of the new arrests, information that might have led them to put the offenders in prison.

Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, issued an order in January barring judges from hiring for the Department of Public Safety after The Sun reported that children of two circuit judges on the unit's personnel committee, as well as others with connections to the court, had gotten jobs with the program. Those judges said in interviews that they had not interviewed their own children and had not acted improperly.

In their letter, Rinehardt and Kaplan wrote that court control would allow them to more precisely monitor offenders' behavior and would speed up their ability to revoke probation if necessary. "It'll avoid all the conflicts," Kaplan said yesterday.

Allowing the oversight committee to control hiring again would make the system more efficient, the judges wrote. "If transferred, the Alternative Sentencing Unit would be able to employ and discharge individuals without the cumbersome process required by State Civil Service policy that frequently delays services and detracts from program efficiency."

They also wrote that the transfer would keep the program from having to "freeze" positions as often as the state does. "With the ability to provide a full staff [which has not been possible in the current system] services could only be expanded and enhanced," the judges wrote.

Since Bell's order, hiring has been done through the office of LaMont W. Flanagan, commissioner of pretrial detention and services, subject to standard state personnel procedures.

The judges would be allowed to hire again if the program were returned to their control, though they still would be subject to rules prohibiting nepotism in the judiciary.

Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a spokesman for Robinson, said yesterday that the judges' request was "under review" until the General Assembly's legislative session ends April 7.

"The secretary has not had the time to address this issue," he said.

State Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who heads the House subcommittee that reviews Robinson's budget, said he would urge Robinson not to cede control of the program. "This program needs to be tightened up and properly managed in light of questions that have been raised about it," Franchot said.

"It receives more review within an executive branch. It's not to say the judiciary doesn't manage things well. It's just that they don't have that layer of review, which is very important to us in the legislature as far as comfort level."

The unit, which has about 150 offenders assigned to it, performs functions similar to those of the Division of Parole and Probation, which Robinson oversees. But in contrast to the average of 98 cases probation agents supervise, Alternative Sentencing employees have a limit of 25 cases to allow for more intensive monitoring of suspects and convicted criminals. Those offenders are seen at least weekly and subjected to frequent drug testing and other restrictions.

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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