Funding increase sought for probation department

More agents needed, House panel is told

January 26, 2001|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Maryland's probation agents are hampered by large caseloads and a woefully inadequate computer system, the director of the Division of Parole and Probation told legislators yesterday.

Judith Sachwald appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to urge approval of $4.5 million in new funding to hire more staff for the troubled agency. The money is part of an 8.2 percent overall increase the governor is proposing in next year's budget for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Sachwald's division wants to add 118 positions, including 67 parole agents to supervise paroled convicts and people sentenced to probation. The extra staff is part of a four-year plan to reduce the average workload for agents from 100 cases to about 50.

The corrections department also is seeking $22 million to improve its computer system. Sachwald said this would allow her staff to more easily track cases, instead of having to leaf through notebooks filled with files that have been passed from agent to agent.

"We [work] in the dark ages," she said as she passed around several bulging black binders. "We will gradually be able to get rid of these archaic notebooks."

The parole division's inadequacies made headlines last year after the killing of Cpl. Edward M. Toatley, a Maryland state trooper who was shot in the head during an undercover drug deal.

The man accused of killing him, a convicted drug dealer, had violated the terms of his probation 72 times but remained free.

Judiciary committee members were sympathetic yesterday to Sachwald's pleas for more funding, and they vowed to push the agency's agenda with the Appropriations Committee.

Del. Thomas E. Hutchins, a Charles County Republican, said he was "disturbed" that the agency was not getting even more money for its programs, given the state's flush financial situation.

"I think it's appalling that state government has overlooked you for so long," said Del. David G. Boschert, an Anne Arundel Republican. "When we overlook you, people die."

Boschert added, however, that he sees increased funding as part of the solution. Marylanders want better supervision for parolees and probationers and better communication throughout the criminal justice system, he said.

"I sense a storm brewing just over the horizon," he said. "The people in my district are wondering, who is minding the store?"

The parole division's 524 agents are responsible for 54,000 men and women who have been released from prison or sentenced to community supervision. Because of their huge caseloads and frequent court appearances, agents spend eight to 10 working days a month on casework, officials said.

The division has submitted a four-year, $14.7 million plan to add 244 parole agents. Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a correction department spokesman, said after the hearing that department officials are "optimistic" about the budget request being met.

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