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After prison, why do inmates stay here?

March 08, 1998

Years ago, before he had left the bench to return to private practice (and fleecing his clients), the late Circuit Court Judge Paul Ottinger occasionally used a special method of sentencing. The perpetrator would be convicted, only to get a unique offer from the judge. Get on a bus and leave town, Ottinger would say, and you won't do any time.

At the time, it struck me as unfair to whatever community was on the receiving end of the judge's "generosity." But last Sunday, after reading Brendan Kirby's story about the new scrutiny being given to recently released inmates as a result of Maryland's "Hot Spots" program, I began to feel a new sympathy for the judge's methods.

The story described parole and probation agent Jackie McDonnell making her rounds of the places where ex-offenders live. Many of them, the story notes, have no real ties to the community. They live here, the story says, because they did their time at the Roxbury complex south of Hagerstown.

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That got me to thinking: If an inmate is originally from Baltimore or Prince George's County, and committed his crime in one of those jurisdictions, why shouldn't they go back home after they've done their time? After all, if you read the police log and the monthly lists of drug offenders published in The Herald-Mail, we've got plenty of home-grown offenders.

For some answers, I talked to some officials of the Maryland Department of Public Safety, including John Middlekauff, the field supervisor for the Hagerstown office of the Department of Parole and Probation, his supervisor, Henry Alexander, who covers a six-county area that includes Washington County and Leonard Sipes, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety.

Based on those interviews I've learned that there are two kinds of inmates - those who have been paroled and those who are on what they called "mandatory release." Inmates in this last group have done most of their time, minus "good time" and other credits they've earned by working or going to classes.

To be paroled, officials told me, an inmate needs a detailed plan that covers where they'll live, work and what drug or psychological treatment they'll undergo as a condition of early release.

Inmates who leave prison under mandatory release are still supervised in Maryland - in contrast to some states that just let these guys out the gate and forget about them. It's just that under the law, the state isn't allowed to place a whole lot of detailed conditions on them.

What you need, basically, is a verifiable home address, and there isn't any rule in the Department of Corrections that says you've got to go back where you came from.

So if you've got no ties to Washington County, why stay here?

"They may have decided that they don't want to go back to where they went before, that they want a fresh start," Alexander said.

Some others can't leave, Alexander said, because if their proposed residence is in another state, under something called the Interstate Compact, that state must first investigate, then provide Maryland with written permission for the inmate to return.

Returning the inmate without notice (as Judge Ottinger used to do) would leave Maryland liable for damages if the offender commited another crime.

And how many of these folks are originally from Washington County?

Because the state's computer system hasn't been updated since the 1970s, that's not a statistic that could be obtained without pulling all the paper files, Alexander said.

At any given time, Sipes said, there are 150 inmates under active supervision by the Hagerstown office who have been released from nearby state institutions.

Of those, Sipes said, about half have ties to local residents, which he explained does not necessarily mean blood relations. Of the remaining 75, about 30 are here because of the Interstate Compact, waiting for their home states to give them an okay to return.

Ideally, Sipes said, all of that work should be done far enough in advance so that those inmates can be transported directly to their destinations, without being stuck in limbo in Hagerstown. Accomplishing that will be a priority in the next year, Sipes said.

All of the officials stressed that in contrast to other states, Maryland is tough on crime. Based on U.S. Department of Justice statistics, Maryland makes violent criminals serve twice as much time as the national average.

But the clamps are being tightened ever further. The local prisons have been asked to stop accepting the Hagerstown YMCA as a verifiable address for inmates' home plans. In July, the state will launch "Break the Cycle," an aggressive new drug-testing program for ex-offenders.

And finally, legislation introduced in the 1998 General Assembly would allow officials to put special conditions (like attending drug treatment or mental-health treatment) on mandatory-release inmates.

Unfortunately, it's too late to do what Somerset County officials did when they agreed to have a new state correctional facility sited there. Only inmates who are on parole can be released into the community. Mandatory-release inmates are transferred elsewhere before their time is up.

Judge Ottinger would probably be proud.

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