Probation agents described Jones as `cooperative'

They weren't told of alleged violations

August 02, 2006|By JULIE BYKOWICZ | JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTER

It appeared to the specially trained parole and probation agents who checked in on Melvin L. Jones Jr. for almost four years that he was following the rules.

All the while, Jones was consistently disobeying a court order to stay away from children by befriending - and even baby-sitting for - a Northeast Baltimore family, according to people who know him.

That duality points to the need for agents to carry smaller caseloads and to the important role that the community plays in reporting violations, one probation official said.

"Do I think the agents were doing everything possible to make sure he was complying with his special conditions? Absolutely," said Elizabeth Bartholomew, spokeswoman for the state Division of Parole and Probation.

"Could they have done more if they had more time and fewer offenders in their caseloads? Absolutely," she said.

Jones, 52, a registered sex offender on a five-year supervised probation for a 2002 sex offense conviction, has been charged in the stabbing death over the weekend of Irvin J. Harris, an 11-year-old boy he frequently baby-sat.

On Sept. 14, 2002, when Jones was released about five months early from his one-year prison sentence, he was assigned a parole agent. After those five months, he shifted to the watch of probation agents.

Bartholomew said agents checked in with Jones monthly, if not more often - making visits to his home in the 3500 block of Old Frederick Road, calling his employer and speaking with him over the phone.

Complying with his court orders, Jones submitted his DNA for a database and registered as a sex offender, listing the Old Fredrick Road home as his address.

Bartholomew said she has reviewed Jones' thick probation folder, which includes about 70 pages of field notes from agents with comments such as "this offender has been cooperative" and "continued to report throughout."

What's missing from the folder are any references to tips from the community.

Almost as soon as he left prison, Jones met the Harris family through his brother, who was dating Shanda Harris, Irvin's mother.

Shanda Harris said Jones baby-sat while she was in drug treatment - unquestionably a violation of his court order to have no unsupervised contact with children.

She also said it appeared Jones was living at his sister's house in Belair-Edison, near the Harris family - a violation because that's not the address listed on the sex offender registry.

All of this was unknown to Jones' parole and probation agents, Bartholomew said, until Irvin disappeared Friday afternoon and was found dead early Monday in a wooded area near his house.

There are 4,000 registered sex offenders in the state, 1,792 of whom are actively on parole or probation.

Agents who are specially trained to deal with sex offenders keep track of 60 cases - less than the 80- to 100-case workload of other agents but still far too many, Bartholomew said.

She said emergency state legislation passed in June calls for the implementation of "sex offender management teams," meaning several agents will track each offender.

Bartholomew said the new laws should help agents keep a more watchful eye on the most dangerous offenders.

"These guys are really sneaky and deceptive, yet they're compliant, just like Melvin Jones," she said. "You really have to do more with sex offenders than with other clients."

Within a year, some sex offenders on parole or probation will be tracked through global-positioning devices. Bartholomew said Jones would have been a good candidate for that because of his previous sex crimes convictions.

Parole and probation agents are unarmed and lack arrest powers. When time permits, Bartholomew said, agents do field investigations of their clients.

She said that when an agent discovered a pathway to a neighborhood swimming pool on a sex offender's property in Roland Park, the agent set up a sting and caught him viewing child pornography on a library computer. He went back to prison.

In another example, agents and police videotaped a sex offender distributing lunches to children on their way to a school in Baltimore, Bartholomew said. He, too, went back to prison.

But far more often, Bartholomew said, an investigation starts not with an agent's observation, but with a community tip.

"Any call will generate some sort of an investigation," Bartholomew said. "If we didn't investigate, we would be remiss in fulfilling our obligation to the public."

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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