Probation overhaul hits money snags

Quandary: As pace slows and modernization plans are scaled down, will inertia take over?

November 18, 2001

MARYLAND'S long-overdue probation overhaul is in danger of unraveling. The reason: The state government's hiring freeze is forcing the probation agency to scale down or abandon reforms.

Probation director Judith Sachwald is a team player who does not want to create a big stink. But 84 out of 750 probation agents' slots are vacant and frozen. Unless replacement agents can be hired, offenders will get away with flimsier supervision. An example: More than 18,000 people convicted of drunken driving might only be checked once a month for sobriety, instead of each week.

The state's Oct. 17 hiring freeze could not have come at a worse time.

After decades of mismanagement and neglect, the Division of Parole and Probation -- which supervises more than 70,000 men and women on conditional release -- was turning around. Over two years, the Glendening administration and the legislature had increased its budget, approved a long-term modernization program and authorized a much-needed beef-up of personnel.

In September, the agency began meting out speedier punishment to criminals who disobey terms of their release. Meanwhile, computerization of 47 probation offices around Maryland was under way.

That task is still expected to be completed by January. For the first time, many probation agents should be able to take advantage of up-to-date technology and discard hand-written notes in three-ring notebook binders.

Baltimore's busy Mondawmin probation office has already been reorganized and is using improved technology. But money woes threaten to postpone similar upgrading at the next three sites -- in Hyattsville, Silver Spring and Denton.

That's not all. The agency was hoping to eliminate the chaos and unreliability of its current databases by rolling out a new, automated information system next summer. That, too, could be postponed.

Such delays are terribly worrisome. They could strengthen the forces of inertia in an agency that has been trying to overcome serious morale and performance problems among its employees.

A year ago, a probation agent burdened with supervising more than 200 criminals failed to recognize one of her charges as a problem. A 23-year-old dope dealer simply didn't stand out: He had missed eight meetings with his probation agent, failed three drug tests and skipped 61 others. But he had also kept 12 probation appointments and passed 45 drug tests. By the time the system caught up with this probationer, it was too late. He was charged with killing an undercover Maryland state trooper.

That kind of tragedy is ripe for repetition, because paralyzing caseloads are still too common for agents. Little relief is in sight: The probation division has set a goal of making one agent responsible for 200 standard cases or 50-55 intensive cases, even though its own consultant warned two years ago that "public safety is jeopardized" by such heavy caseloads.

Maryland's decision-makers favor probation because its annual cost is 41 times cheaper than keeping a convict imprisoned. However, such savings are illusory if the probation system is faulty and fails at meaningful supervision.

This is a real danger, if the current budget crunch is allowed to stunt the probation division's promising turnaround efforts by not only freezing this year's allocation but diminishing -- or eliminating -- staff and equipment increases planned for the next fiscal year.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening and other Maryland politicians should view a well-functioning probation division as an extension of homeland defense.

If state and local law enforcement agencies are preoccupied with the terrorist threat, they will have less time for ordinary duties. That's why more probation agents are needed to supervise offenders that courts and the correctional system have returned to their neighborhoods.

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