St. Mary's pretrial supervision program earns praise as it cuts incarceration

Suzanna Fowler has many challenges in her life.

At 32, the mother of three is addicted to drugs, and pregnant again.

She's on probation for possessing drug paraphernalia. And she's facing trial on drug distribution charges.

But at least she's not in jail.

Fowler is one of roughly 45 defendants now receiving services and supervision through St. Mary's County's pretrial supervision program, which is winning accolades for its results in getting criminal defendants to show up for trial and avoid new offenses without relying on bail or incarceration.

The program has been held up by law enforcement leaders and lawmakers across Maryland as a potential model as they move to comply with new court rules requiring them to reduce the role of cash bail in deciding which defendants to free.

Fowler, who was reporting in for a drug test when a reporter visited Leonardtown to learn about the program, says she's grateful it's there.

She's been released on Level 4 supervision, the program's strictest, and wears a GPS monitoring device on her ankle. Fowler gives a urine sample three times a week. She is on methadone maintenance to address her opioid addiction, and has a 10 p.m. curfew.

"They keep you accountable," Fowler said. "Structure is my biggest thing. I need the structure."

Maj. Michael Merican, an assistant sheriff in St. Mary's, launched the program in 2015, when he was warden at the county detention center. He said it's been good for public safety and county finances.

"It's a cost savings to the public," he said. "The state can't afford to build bigger prisons and bigger jails."

Caryn York, policy director of the Baltimore-based Job Opportunities Task Force, calls it "the best pretrial system in the state."

"Their system is touted around the country as well," she said.

York said advocates for criminal justice reform are encouraging officials from other Maryland jurisdictions to study what St. Mary's is doing. But it's been a tough sell so far.

"A lot of folks just want to maintain the status quo out of fear," she said.

St. Mary's, Maryland's southernmost county, is a half-rural, half-exurban jurisdiction of 113,000, home to watermen, service members and civilians at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, veterans and a significant corps of long-distance commuters to Washington.

What sets the county's pretrial program apart, reform advocates say, are its smart use of existing resources and the comprehensiveness of its supervisory services. They say its modest scale and budget make it an attractive model for other jurisdictions.

St. Mary's is hardly a hotbed of liberalism. Sheriff Timothy K. Cameron is a Republican, and so are all five members of the Board of County Commissioners. While Republican Donald J. Trump lost the Maryland vote in November, St. Mary's gave him a margin of more than 10,000 votes over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

But keeping people locked up costs taxpayers money. The county puts the cost of jailing a prisoner at $149 per day, while supervising a released defendant is roughly $29. If the county weren't supervising those 45 people on the outside, officials say, it would have to staff an additional wing of the jail.

Still, Merican isn't handing out free passes.

"It's very important to keep the right people in jail," he said.

To help judges make that decision, the sheriff's department uses a scoring system that assesses the risk that releasing a prisoner would pose.

Deputies interview each prisoner and gather information using a template borrowed from Montgomery County. Points can be added for maintaining a job or holding a high school diploma. They can be taken away for past convictions or probation violations.

Prisoners' statements are checked against law enforcement databases. Deputies formulate a recommendation to the judge on whether a defendant should enter pretrial detention. The judge gets the final say.

One recent day, a man in late middle age appeared before Circuit Judge Karen Abrams via a video link on a charge of sexually abusing a child. The staff had recommended holding him, given the severity of the charge, but the judge noted that the allegation dated to 2000, and the defendant had no subsequent convictions. The defendant was granted pretrial release with a monitoring unit and told to stay away from minors.

Merican said the program could not succeed without support from judges, prosecutors and public defenders.

Matthew Connell, the county's chief public defender, said he's a "big fan" of the program. Before its introduction, he said, the county had people sitting in jail awaiting trial because they couldn't afford bail as low as $100.

"Now that it's in place, everybody likes it," he said. "The court likes it, the defense bar likes it. I think even the prosecutors like it."

Calls to the county state's attorney's office were not returned.

One reason for the support, Merican said, is that about 200 participants in the program last year showed up for their court dates at a rate of 99 percent. About 92 percent did not commit new crimes — apart from technical violations of their terms of release — before their trials, according to the sheriff's office.

When defendants complete the pretrial program successfully, judges decide not to incarcerate them about 70 percent of the time, according to the sheriff's office. Often, that decision comes after a pretrial supervisor has connected a defendant with services such as drug treatment, educational programs, job opportunities or health care.

The role of pretrial release in the state's criminal justice system has come in for new scrutiny in the past year.

State courts have long compelled defendants to return to court by requiring them to post cash bail, which is held until they appear. But studies have found that many low-risk defendants can't afford even modest bail, while higher-risk individuals with money can go free.

Attorney General Brian E. Frosh wrote in an opinion last year that he doubted Maryland's cash bail system could withstand a constitutional challenge because it made freedom conditional on the ability to pay. Frosh also questioned whether high bail should be used as a means of ensuring public safety.

Maryland's highest court adopted a rule in February instructing court commissioners and judges not to set bail without determining the defendant's ability to pay and considering other means, such as pretrial supervision, of ensuring their appearance.

The state's powerful bail bond industry objected to the rule, and state lawmakers debated it during the legislative session.

Some lawmakers say cash bail plays a useful role in ensuring defendants return to court, and it should be considered on the same level as pretrial supervision. That view was reflected in a bill that would have eliminated the provision in the Court of Appeals rule that cash bail should be the least-favored option.

The legislation passed the Senate this year but died in the House, leaving the rule to stand.

It goes into effect July 1. But officials in St. Mary's say they're already seeing the effects.

When bail is set, they say, the dollar amount tends to be lower. Higher-level drug dealers, who used to be able to afford bail, are being kept locked up more often.

One of the main arguments used by the bondsmen was that putting released defendants on GPS units could cost them more than bail. Some jurisdictions make the defendants pay for monitoring.

In St. Mary's, the county bears the cost of the GPS units, figuring it's less expensive than keeping people locked up.

"Our goal is to get as many people out as we can, as long as they meet our benchmarks," said Kristie Ardire, the pretrial program supervisor.

Last year, 33 percent of the St. Mary's jail population was awaiting trial. That was about half the state average. The comparable segment in Baltimore's state-run jail during the first quarter of 2017 was more than 94 percent.

One beneficiary of the St. Mary's policy is DaShawn Lawson. Arrested on a charge of driving on a suspended license and delinquent in his payments on past traffic offenses, he said he wouldn't have been able to afford bail.

The 22-year-old has no criminal record, but a history of missing court appearances on traffic charges.

He was placed on Level 1 supervision. Pretrial supervisors will remind him of his court date.

"Pretrial is great," Lawson said. "They work with me really well."

He's working now in an apprenticeship program with an insulators' union. He said he'll soon pay off his past fines.

Merican said one of the program's aims is to see that jail doesn't cost people jobs.

"You miss three days of work and you're fired," he said.

While St. Mary's is a relatively small, rural jurisdiction, advocates point to Montgomery County as evidence that an effective pretrial program can be scaled up to a large metropolitan county.

Montgomery, Maryland's most populous jurisdiction, launched its pretrial program in 1990.

Robert Green is director of Montgomery County's Department of Correction and Rehabilitation. Anytime officials can use a validated risk assessment to release a defendant, he said, it's a benefit for both public safety and that individual.

He said less than 4 percent of the county's pretrial release participants — roughly 700 at any given time — fail to appear for trial.

"It's an accepted and practiced and integral part of our criminal justice system in Montgomery County," Green said.

York agrees that Montgomery County's program is also effective. But she sees St. Mary's as more likely to serve as a model for other jurisdictions — particularly those in rural areas.

"Montgomery County is a really wealthy county," York noted. For that reason, she said, officials in smaller jurisdictions might dismiss it as a potential model.

Merican said officials from several other counties — Kent, Cecil and Worcester — have expressed interest in learning more about his program.

Most of Maryland's metropolitan counties have pretrial services units. About a dozen smaller counties have none.

Gerard Shields, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the Baltimore detention complex has "one of the most robust and oldest" pretrial services programs in the United States. He said the program supervises about 5,100 people. Only about 6 percent fail to appear, he said, and only 1 percent commit new crimes.

Cherise Fanno Burdeen, chief executive of the Maryland-based Pretrial Justice Institute, said Baltimore has a good risk assessment tool, but she's not impressed by how officials use it. She said Baltimore judges still rely too much on cash bail, and still leave too many people in jail pending trial who could safely be released.

When the new court rule limiting bail takes effect, Burdeen said, the importance of pretrial supervision will only increase.

The Baltimore County pretrial services unit is "not as robust" as the St. Mary's program, district public defender Donald E. Zaremba said.

"It's certainly not where it needs to be," he said. The jail population has been growing, he said, and judges seem reluctant to approve home detention.

Advocates say the programs vary in effectiveness, but none has received the positive statewide attention of Montgomery and St. Mary's.

"If any of the others were standouts, then we would know about them," said John Clark, senior manager at the Public Justice Institute.

Capt. Deborah Diedrich, who has run the St. Mary's jail since Merican's promotion in March, said she doesn't see any reason why other Maryland counties can't re-create her department's program. She said the county did it mostly with existing resources by shifting staff from the jail to pretrial supervision.

"It's been a wonderful experience for us," she said. "It's just overall been a win for everybody."

Herb Dennis, warden of the Kent County detention center, toured the St. Mary's facility recently to learn how the program works. He concluded the approach could help his Eastern Shore county.

"This will keep people from losing their houses, being homeless, give them some structure," he said. "This is something we will work on in Kent County."

mdresser@baltsun.com

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