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Md. panel looks to reduce costs of probation

ANNAPOLIS — A state panel is eyeing changes to Maryland’s probation system to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated, using the savings to pay for additional drug and mental health treatment and other recidivism reduction programs.

The Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council is considering the recommendations as part of an overall effort to change state criminal sentencing and criminal rehabilitation policies, reforms that more than two dozen other states have undertaken.

Those recommendations are likely to include some discussion of changing probation, including how to reduce the number of people incarcerated  for s0-called technical violations, which typically are less serious than additional arrests or previous convictions.

“This is a huge driver,” said Christopher Shank, the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention and a member of the council. “All of the things that we want to get to we won’t if we don’t squeeze the numbers from somewhere.”

Last year more than 3,200 people on probation were sentenced to an average of 13 months in jail for technical violations, such as missing appointments.

Shank said some initial estimates place the costs of those incarcerations at about $34 million.

“The numbers are pretty telling,” said Sen. Michael J. Hough, R-Frederick and Carroll Counties and a member of the council. “We just have to figure out a way to get these numbers down to get a cost savings.”

The bipartisan panel was created by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. as part of legislation that passed the General Assembly earlier this year.

In addition to looking at probation reform, other work groups are considering changes for mandatory sentencing guidelines as well as re-entry programs.

Money saved from the reforms would not likely lead to overall budget savings but would be used to reinvest in other efforts to reduce drug abuse or other anti-recidivism efforts.

Hough urged the panel to make recommendations on where any savings should be spent.

“I don’t want to leave it up to people’s promises,” Hough said.

The panel that met Monday focused strictly on probation issues and is considering several changes to the probation system as a means of reducing incarceration as well as providing incentives for good behavior.

One idea under consideration is the creation of credits that could reduce the overall length of a probation sentence for low-risk offenders. The credits, up to 20 days per month, would be earned for things such as making restitution payments, clean drug tests, education and work training or getting a job.

Violent offenders would not likely be eligible for the credits.

Some panel members expressed concern about how to handle credits for offenders sentenced on drug distribution charges.

One of those recommendations would include the implementation of a so-called swift and certain punishment system for small violations that would place much of the disciplinary functions short of  incarceration in the hands of probation agents or the Department of Parole and Probation.

A judge who could give violators “quick dip” sentences of 15 to 45 days in jail would deal with patterns of violations or more severe infractions.

But caps on incarceration have raised the eyebrows of some judges.

“Any type of cap that would limit us to 15 days would not well serve the judiciary,” said Maryland District Court Chief Judge John Morrissey.

Morrissey said judges might take the cap into consideration and adjust sentences that would result in additional incarceration.

“It might backfire on the whole,” Morrissey said. “If it were a mandatory cap, that would not be favorable because it limits our discretion and every cast is unique.”