Md. launches anti-crime program Probation officers put on streets in nation's first statewide effort

Agents teamed with police

Focus is on repeat offenders in 'hot spots'

Boston plan is model

September 09, 1997|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

Hoping to catch repeat offenders before their next crime, Maryland today launches "community probation" in 35 high-crime areas across the state, more than a dozen in the Baltimore area -- the first statewide program in the nation to put probation officers on the street.

Begun in Boston and successfully piloted in Prince George's County, the program will team at least three probation agents in each area with police officers, making house calls, checking curfews and talking to residents about the behavior of probationers.

The street-based monitoring effort is being implemented in 35 areas throughout Maryland identified as high-crime by the federally funded "Hot Spot" program.

"Before this, the police and probation officers didn't communicate," said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who will open the initial training session for 250 police officers and probation agents today in Annapolis. "The people who were on probation were obscure."

Now, she said: "Probation officers for the first time are going to be on the street. The agents will be out pounding the pavement."

Probation can be critical in the fight against crime, particularly drug-related crime, officials said.

"If you go to any drug corner, the odds are, at least half of the people selling are on probation somewhere," said Michael Sarbanes, executive director of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention. "It's a tremendous tool for neighborhoods that are fighting crime."

But officials also say that, too often, probation is virtually unenforced until a probationer is arrested for something else. This program is designed to change that, they say.

It will depend on residents who see what offenders are doing and on the close relationship that has developed between community-based police officers and neighborhood residents.

"If you say, 'Who is your police officer?' -- they'll know," Sarbanes said. "If we ask people in the community, 'Who is your probation officer?' they don't know. They don't yet have that relationship with their probation officer."

The Boston-area program on which the effort is based, called "Operation Night Light," began in 1992 and came to the attention of Maryland officials through two national associations of probation officers. Boston police credit it with sharply reducing crime, particularly gang crime. The number of probationers arrested for new crimes dropped 10 percent in areas using the program over the past two years, police statistics show.

One Boston area probation officer reported dramatic results: between 1990 and 1994, 68 of his probationers were slain. But for 1995 and the first half of 1996 -- after the program had been started -- only three of the officer's probationers had been killed.

Maryland officials visited Boston last year to look at the probation model. The Prince George's County pilot program began in Palmer Park last year, and Townsend characterized it as successful, although no statistics were available from the state yesterday.

Community probation is one part of the Maryland Hot Spot Communities initiative, launched in July, which spread more than $3.8 million to communities around the state. The program focuses on specific areas and neighborhoods, taking a local approach to crime, including offices in the neighborhoods.

Most of the 35 community probation areas will get a basic package of three probation officers -- one dealing with adult, one with juvenile and one with federal probationers, Townsend said.

But nine areas -- two in Baltimore City, two in Prince George's and one each in Baltimore, Washington, Wicomico, Anne Arundel and St. Mary's counties -- will get extra officers to deal with a high level of cases.

Much of the funding for the new statewide program is in place through existing budgets for probation officer salaries and costs, according to Sarbanes. "Mostly, it's just a new way of doing business," he said.

However, new computers designed to mesh police and probation files, as well as cellular phones and pagers, are expected to cost about $240,000, he said, and the total cost of the program the first year should be about $700,000.

Pub Date: 9/09/97

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