Debate Over Probation Officer Staffing Continues - Southern Maryland Headline News

Debate Over Probation Officer Staffing Continues

By Len Lazarick,

(August 17, 2011)—The head of the union representing parole and probation officers is taking strong exception to the letter from the acting head of the division that we published last week.

That in turn was a response to our initial article, “Probation officers are stretched too thin, union head says.”

The department declined to offer a written response to union president Rai Douglas’ letter below, since it saw it as a rehash of his initial complaint.

But Rick Binetti, director of communications for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Safety, said: “The continued falling crime rate in Maryland doesn’t jibe with the Douglas argument that DPP agents are stretched so thin that it is threatening public safety.” Binetti referred to new crime stats released Wednesday that showed Maryland crime is at its lowest level since 1975.

Below is Douglas’ letter in full. More of Binetti’s response to the letter follows at the bottom.

Since this is a long-running dispute between the division and the union chief, we’re going to let the matter rest for now. Anyone may comment on these letters, and we’d especially like to hear from parole and probation agents. We’d also like to hear from anyone who believes a crime was committed in the last two years due to understaffing of the department.

Governor has let agents down, says union leader

Dear Editor,

The Maryland Division of Parole and Probation (DPP) is one of the most important agencies of the criminal justice system but one of the least understood. The Maryland Reporter’s article on August 9, 2011, “Probation officers are stretched too thin,” did a great job accurately explaining the crisis of out of control caseloads.

Acting Director Patricia Vale’s response was curious to say the least. She claimed that the average caseload size for Maryland’s Parole and Probation general supervision agents were taken out of context. I am not sure what that means since the numbers were taken directly from Gov. O’Malley’s most recent StateStat report to which the article linked. Apparently the O’Malley Administration considers any use of StateStat numbers to be out of context if it reflects negatively on Gov. O’Malley.

Several years ago, I attended a legislative hearing which then DPP Director W. Roland Knapp was asked how many cases could an agent reasonably be expected to supervise. Director Knapp replied “Between 50 and 75 active cases to be effective.”

On June 13, 2009, each DPP employee received an email from Deputy Director Phillip Pie who also acknowledged the overwhelming caseloads. Mr. Pie wrote, “The Director and I know you cannot possibly do all that is asked of you.”

The 2009 study from the Justice Policy Institute cited in the article noted “The DPP anticipates meeting the nationally recognized ideal level of 50 cases per agent.” Promising to meet the national ideal standard is proof that that current caseloads are not ideal.

This year I attended a legislative hearing were then DPP Director Patrick McGee was asked if agents were able to handle their large caseloads then averaging 127 offenders per general supervision agent. Director McGee responded “No, not really. They struggle daily.”

Former Director McGee’s testimony corroborates research that manageable caseload sizes along with the use of evidence based practices (EBP) would improve public safety for Marylanders. Here are the results of a study that researched the impact of reduced caseloads and EBP.

“Our results suggest that reduced caseloads, in combination with EBP, can lead to improved recidivism outcomes…Consequently, reduced caseloads result in more efficient distribution of resources, and improved average probation outcomes.”

Those are just some of the reasons it was disappointing to read the O’Malley Administration is now describing caseloads of 145 as a “a manageable number.” Where is the O’Malley administration’s evidence to support their claim?

Agents are not able to keep up because of crushing caseloads. Stress and a lack of support are forcing experienced agents to leave. Many take positions with federal agencies. Several have left for jobs that pay less and some have even left without having another job. Experienced agents often chose to retire despite a willingness to stay if things weren’t so dysfunctional. One office lost five agents in just one month!

While Gov. O’Malley piously lectures other governors about their treatment of state employees he is treating parole and probation agents with callous disregard.

In 2006, I stood shoulder to shoulder with then Mayor O’Malley to announce that AFSCME Local 3661 proudly endorsed his candidacy for governor. In 2010, due to the lack of support and respect we remained neutral in the race for governor. Now in 2011, we are on the verge of holding a vote of no confidence on Gov. O’Malley. By ignoring the crisis at DPP Gov. O’Malley is playing Russian Roulette with public safety.

Rai Douglas, President
AFSCME Local #3661

Department responds

Department spokesman Rick Binetti said, “Mr. Douglas may not agree with Maryland’s approach, but it is an approach based on research-based risk assessment tools for offenders and evidence-based practices in supervision.”

As director Vale noted in her letter, those practices include more intensive supervision of violent and sexual offenders by specially trained agents with lower caseloads. There is greater use of technology to share information about offenders among 100 law enforcement agencies in various jurisdictions. There is also sharing between Washington, D.C. and Delaware, leading to more cross-border arrests.

For violent offenders, the caseload averages 26 per agent, helping to reduce homicide and fatal shooting rates in Baltimore and Prince George’s County among ex-offenders, the department believes.

Simply put, public safety has improved due to StateStat and other programs to track offenders, Binetti said.

Needless to say, Douglas was not impressed with the improvement in crime statistics. “Just imagine how much better they would be if our caseloads were manageable,” he said.

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