NewsPlus - Operation Spotlight

February 26, 1998

by Ric Dugan / staff photographer

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Operation SpotlightNewsPlus - Operation Spotlight

When parole and probation agent Jackie McDonnell arrives at the YMCA to visit a probationer, she finds beer cans littering the floor of his room.

Nothing to worry about, William Matthews assures her. Most of them are old.

"I'm doing fine, Jackie, couldn't be better," he says.

"Except for the alcohol," McDonnell counters.

"One thing at a time," he answers.

With that, Matthews shows McDonnell a bottle of prescription drugs - pills he is trying desperately to kick.

"I'm maintaining," he says.


The 37-year-old man is on probation for burglary and theft. His offense: Stealing door knockers in Annapolis.

Like many of McDonnell's clients, Matthews lives in Hagerstown because he served his prison sentence here. A drifter with no contacts to the community, he is biding his time at the YMCA until a spot opens at the Joseph S. Massie Unit at the Finan Center in Cumberland, Md. There, he will get help for his addiction.

The beer is a clear violation of Matthews' probation.

With just six days left until his treatment is to begin, McDonnell says she is crossing her fingers that she can get him through the next week. Although she will report the violation to the court as the law requires, she says she plans to recommend that he remain on probation.

"I could get him arrested right now. But what have I solved?" she says.

The hot spots

Jackie McDonnell's visit to the YMCA is part of a new effort by the Maryland Division of Parole and Probation to improve its contact with the county's worst offenders. It dovetails with a grander experiment on the part of Maryland officials to reduce crime in the state's most crime-ridden neighborhoods.

Under the Maryland HotSpot Communities Initiative, Washington County officials have designated a half-mile area of the city for increased police patrols and prevention programs.

The idea is to hit the crime problem where it is concentrated. The hot spot area, with 600-some residents, accounts for almost a quarter of Washington County's violent offenses.

The parole segment of the effort, Operation Spotlight, has been in effect since November.

McDonnell, an 18-year veteran of the state agency, works in the parole and probation division's Washington County office. She has been designated the Hagerstown office's spotlight agent.

All of her clients live within the hot spot and all require the greatest level of supervision based on the agency's risk assessment. Three other agents supervise offenders exclusively within the hot spot.

The hot spot parole and probation agents travel with Hagerstown City Police officers, making unannounced visits to their clients' homes. With an officer at their side, they can make on-the-spot arrests if they witness laws being broken.

But McDonnell said a far more valuable aspect of the program is that agents are talking with clients, meeting their families and friends and noting their living conditions.

"I get to see people in their environment," she said.

McDonnell said such visits are far more revealing than office visits, which parolees and probationers still must make each week.

Before, she could make visits only about once a week. Now she goes out two nights and one day a week, she said.

For McDonnell, the program has had another benefit. She previously had 120 cases. Now she has 56. That number will be reduced, because the division has pledged to cap her cases at 50.

With a normal caseload, about 15 offenders do not show up for their weekly check-in at the parole and probation office, McDonnell said.

That means it could take days or even weeks to track them all down. But with 50 cases, she said only three or four miss their appointments.

"I can respond quicker," McDonnell said.

There is a down side to Operation Spotlight.

To reduce the caseloads of McDonnell and the other three hot spot agents, dozens of cases were transferred to other agents. As a result, those agents have less time to spend with their clients than before.

"When they bombard you with cases, your personal standards - you just can't do it all," McDonnell said. "They feel overwhelmed. They feel dumped on."

John Middlekauff, the division's Hagerstown field supervisor, acknowledged the drawback.

Although he is a proponent of the concept, Middlekauff said non-hot spot agents now have more cases - or cases that require more time - than standards prescribed by the state.

"It limits the amount of field work that my general supervision agents can do," he said. "They're trying to see these people at least face-to-face in the office."

Even with the addition of a new agent who started within the last month, parole and probation agents who are assigned cases outside the hot spot are above the standard number of workload units by about five to 10 points.

A workload unit is a formula that takes into account the level of supervision required by an individual case.

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