Plan calls for paying parolees to comply

Ex-offenders would get $25-a-month incentive

One critic calls it bribery

November 18, 2003|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Crime isn't supposed to pay, but reporting to your parole officer just might.

Some parolees and probationers would receive up to $25 a month for staying on the straight and narrow under a pilot program being hammered out by the Abell Foundation and the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Supporters say the plan, which one expert called a rarity in corrections, would provide ex-offenders with an extra incentive to go along with the threat of incarceration.

The idea is "to give some motivation to people to comply with conditions of probation so they don't get violated and go back to prison and cost society a whole lot of money," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the foundation.

The cash incentives, which would be offered to hundreds of people supervised at the state's Mondawmin office, do not sit well with agents who monitor offenders. The plan amounts to paying people not to break the law again, agents say.

"I think it's ludicrous that they're trying to bribe offenders to do the right thing," Rai Douglas, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3661, which represents parole and probation agents.

"The very fact that they're given probation, which is a gift to begin with, should be enough for them to appreciate their freedom and to continue to try to comply with their probation," he said.

David B. Muhlhausen, who focuses on crime and judicial issues as a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, also found fault with the idea.

"If they don't follow the terms of their probation, what you do is enforce the terms," he said. "What's going to happen next if the $25 doesn't work? What are they going to do, raise it to $50, $100? Where does this lead? ... It sounds like blackmail to me."

But the state stands to save a lot of money if the cash incentives prove effective, said Ernest Eley, program manger for the agency's Division of Parole and Probation. It costs Maryland $23,000 a year to incarcerate someone, compared to less than $1,000 for community supervision, he said.

"I don't see it as a way of paying people," he said. "I see the possibility of the state deriving a tremendous cost benefit from this particular pilot program."

The foundation has given preliminary approval for a $50,000 grant to fund the program, although some details are still being worked out, Eley said. No taxpayer money would be used to pay offenders, he stressed.

Parolees and probationers would receive up to $25 a month for meeting the terms of their release or achieving certain milestones, such as testing negative for drugs or alcohol, earning a high school equivalency diploma or completing a job training program, Eley said.

Officials from the state agency and the foundation have been discussing the plan for about six months.

About 4,000 offenders are supervised at the Mondawmin office, but only those who have 12 months to 18 months of supervision remaining would be eligible to participate so results could be tracked over time, Eley said. It was not clear how many offenders are in that category, but they number at least in the hundreds, Eley said.

If the program is successful, the state might decide to provide a similar incentive - not through direct cash payments, but by waiving part or all of the fees offenders pay each month for their supervision, Eley said. Probationers must pay the state a $25 monthly supervision fee, while parolees pay $40.

About 51,000 people are under criminal supervision statewide, about 20,000 of them in Baltimore, he said.

The program is based on national studies that indicate positive incentives promote good behavior better than punishment, said Eley, who mentioned the work of a University of Connecticut professor. However, that professor said the results of his continuing studies, which did not include criminal offenders, were not yet conclusive.

Mark Litt, professor of behavioral sciences at the University of Connecticut Health Center, is conducting two studies that award vouchers worth $1 to $300 to marijuana smokers and alcoholics who abstain. The vouchers can be traded for lottery tickets, prepaid gas cards and household items.

Preliminary results from the marijuana study indicate incentives have a positive effect, but it is too early to say if they are working in the alcohol study, he said.

Litt has found that once incentives are withdrawn, "behaviors tend to regress to their baseline. It sort of stops working."

Participants in Litt's study are volunteers who are not in the criminal justice system. He had wanted to study parolees in several states but was rebuffed.

"People in corrections tend to be very skeptical of this," Litt said. "They're going with this sort of moralistic idea that you shouldn't have to pay people for desirable behavior. The trouble is, these are people who do not have a history of producing this kind of behavior in the first place."

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