State Grant Helps County

Alternative Program For Some Offenders Is Revived

July 12, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

A Howard County alternative sentencing program for minor offenders eliminated July 1 in a budget cut is being revived, thanks to an $85,000 state grant and the interest and ingenuity of a host of officials and K. Frank Turban.

The County Council is scheduled to vote on approving the grant July 30. Turban, 62, a retired drunken-driving probation agent and a recovering alcoholic who founded a 12-step program called Serenity Center in Columbia, hopes to get the county program running again in August.

"A tremendous number of nonprofits use community service for a lot of labor," Turban said. When he read newspaper stories about the 14-year-old program formerly run from the county sheriff's office ending July 1, he contacted County Executive Ken Ulman to propose a revival.

"I listened to County Council members who expressed concern about losing that program," Ulman said. Then he attended an event at the Serenity Center in Oakland Mills.

"I'm excited that it looks like the program will work."

Councilwoman Jennifer Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat who pushed with others to revive the program, said she's also gratified.

"This piece of our justice system was really important," she said. The new program won't deal with juveniles, but Terrasa is hopeful that will be revived, too. Anne Towne, director of the Association of Community Services, an umbrella group for county human service nonprofits, said her organization is trying to find a way to solve that problem.

People convicted of drunken driving, disorderly conduct, traffic offenses or who were given alcohol citations were sometimes ordered by county judges to perform community service instead of paying fines or going to jail. Cash-strapped nonprofits and county agencies benefited.

Circuit Court Judge Louis A. Becker said sometimes judges use the program for people who can't afford to pay fines, but can stay out of jail or afford to pay restitution to victims if they are sent to do community service.

"I'm really glad to see it back. Most of my colleagues want to see a program," Becker said.

Although the sheriff-run program would have cost $466,743 to operate in fiscal 2010, including $289,743 in county funds helping to pay for four full-time workers, Turban expects to get by with one full-time and one part-time employee, he said. The new version will more heavily depend on help from state parole and probation agents, he said.

Sheriff James Fitzgerald told the council in May that the program was rarely being used by county judges, and that he had turned juvenile offenders over to the state Department of Juvenile Services more than a year ago. He recommended ending the program as a way of saving money, and Ulman took the suggestion to help squeeze through a tight budget year.

But Neil Dorsey, the 13-year director of the program who retired just before Fitzgerald took office in December 2006, accused the new sheriff of intentionally undermining the program - a charge Fitzgerald denied.

If the council accepts the renewed Governor's Office of Crime Control grant, the money would be administered by Jack Kavanagh, county director of corrections. He said he's been meeting with Turban and county judges to work out the details, though not everything is yet clear.

People entering the program must be screened for criminal records before being placed in community service jobs, for example, and not every participant will be under the authority of state probation agents.

"Everybody has to realize it's down to one and one-half people running this thing. We all have to agree on who's going to be in this program, who does the screening and background checks." Kavanagh said his own staff at the detention center may help.

County budget director Raymond S. Wacks said the state grant is a continuation of support from past years. Fees paid by participants plus county funding paid the remaining costs of the original program.

If the County Council approves the grant, Wacks said the county would advance Turban some money to get the program started quickly. The old, more-expensive program was "bloated," he said.

"This is going to be a leaner, more effective program."

Turban is a Navy veteran who battled alcoholism through much of his life, until an incident in 1986 at age 40 when he nearly crashed into a herd of cows and several county police cars coming home from a local bar, he told The Sun in a 1999 article. He'd had three DWI arrests since 1975, and had run up heavy debts during alcoholic blackouts.

He was sentenced to alcohol monitoring, and straightened his life out. He founded Serenity Center in 1993, and became a probation agent working with alcoholics the next year, retiring in January 2008, volunteering his time running Serenity Center. On Basket Ring Road in the Talbott Springs neighborhood, the center has four meeting rooms and a kitchen and hosts dozens of 12-step program meetings for substance abusers every month.

Turban said he's already working to get the program ready to start.

"I will personally visit every one of the judges," he said, to encourage them to order defendants to participate. He hopes the program will have 700 to 1,000 clients a year.

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