Released But Under Scrutiny

CRIME BEAT

December 27, 2009|By Peter Hermann

The parole and probation agent had his gun drawn as he made his way inside the West Baltimore rowhouse. The man he was searching for was upstairs, according to relatives who answered the early-morning knock.

"Come down with your hands up," the agent shouted as he peered up the dark stairway.

The man slowly walked down, then was quickly handcuffed and seated on the living room sofa. He couldn't understand why eight armed officers had crowded into his rowhouse before 7 on a recent weekday morning.

He had been mandatorily released from prison (meaning he had served his time) on an assault conviction, but was still under the supervision of parole agents because he had gotten out early with work and good-conduct credits. A fresh arrest on a drug charge meant he had violated the terms of his release.

FOR THE RECORD - The Crime Beat column in Sunday's editions misstated the role of law enforcement agents assigned to Maryland's Violence Prevention Initiative, which keeps violent offenders under strict scrutiny. The 27 agents referred to in the column serve warrants; an additional 75 agents monitor offenders as part of the VPI program. The Sun regrets the error.

That prosecutors had dropped the charges didn't matter. He can still go before a judge and could still be sent back to prison.

The suspect was one of more than 2,200 people recently released from prison under the supervision of parole or probation agents who have been put in the state's Violence Prevention Initiative program, launched by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services in July 2007 to keep a close eye on the most violent and frequent offenders.

Before this program began, infractions such as a missed meeting with an agent or even a new arrest might go unnoticed or be ignored as mere technical violations. Authorities now remind the parolees and probationers who are tagged as the worst of the worst that stepping out of line even by a nose hair can mean being thrown back into the slammer.

"These are the people who are wreaking havoc on the citizens of Baltimore," said Chief Vernon Skuhr, the executive director of the Community Surveillance and Enforcement Program for the state prison system.

Skuhr started as a young probation agent in 1967, and he now leads squads throughout the state; even after four decades, the 61-year-old still straps on a gun and vest, climbs behind the wheel of an unmarked Chevrolet sedan and hits the streets with his teams.

The chief told me that in years past, prosecutors and judges were reluctant to lock up offenders for anything but the most serious violation. His job, he said, "was more social work than law enforcement."

Agents now work side by side with many police departments, including Baltimore's, where more than half of the people in the Violence Prevention Initiative live. For detectives, the program gives them another way to haul in suspects for questioning or keep them detained while they finish their investigation.

Of the 2,200 people designated for the initiative, more than 1,300 have had their parole or probation revoked. And the numbers are going up fast. There were 304 revocations in fiscal 2008 and 1,059 in fiscal 2009. In 2008, judges issued 1,176 warrants for people in the anti-violence initiative, and 1,898 in 2009. About 90 percent are successfully served.

But judges don't always agree that the violator deserves to be back in prison, frustrating parole and probation agents who want everyone on board with their program.

For police, these offenders have served their time and gotten a break by getting out early. Failing to live up to their contract, with an infraction as serious as committing a new offense or as minor as missing an appointment with an agent, means they should be sent back to finish their sentences.

Baltimore's police commissioner, facing a year in which not a dent was made in the homicide numbers, went on a public tirade this month about offenders roaming the streets, after police shot two felons in two days, one outside a courthouse, the other after he had taken a .50-caliber handgun to a meeting with his probation agent.

Even with hiccups, the Violence Prevention Initiative has energized parole and probation agents who now feel the arrests they do make have new importance. There are 27 agents assigned to the initiative. Eighteen work in the Baltimore metropolitan area. On a morning this month, eight in a convoy of five cars hit houses from East Baltimore's Remington and Harwood neighborhoods to a garden-style apartment complex in Baltimore County's Perry Hall.

At the suburban address, the agents searched for a man on parole for assault who had failed to adhere to his 7 p.m. curfew, imposed as a condition of his release. His ankle-mounted GPS device had alerted authorities to the violation.

Back in the city, on East Lorraine Avenue, agents were looking for a man paroled on an assault charge who had gotten arrested again. The man's aunt answered the door but insisted her nephew didn't live there and hadn't been there in weeks.

"He's using this address," one agent told her.

But when agents went upstairs, two children readily told them the man had slept there that night and had left for work just before the authorities arrived.

"Kids don't lie," said Capt. Roy Thumma. "He stays here. We may have missed him by 15 minutes. We just got to hit it again."

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