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Arundel judge keeps tabs on probationers; Ronald Silkworth says hearings offer chance for motivation

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On a quiet Friday afternoon, the judicial grilling begins, and none of the convicted criminals sitting in the Anne Arundel County courtroom of Judge Ronald A. Silkworth's wants to be toast.

All are here for their motivational reminder from Silkworth that he can jail them if they nose-dive into violating their probation, or commend their efforts to straighten up and fly right. Have they made their Narcotics Anonymous meetings? Are they getting along with their probation officers? How's the job working out?

These "review hearings" are rare enough among other Circuit Court judges in the region that local lawyers refer to them as "Judge Silkworth hearings." Silkworth holds from three to eight of them a week, checking up on about a quarter of the criminal defendants he places on probation.

"I think it's helpful for these people to see that the court is not just interested in punishing them, but in seeing their success," said Silkworth, who began holding the hearings six months after being appointed to the bench in 1996.

Judges have no obligation to bring probationers to court when no violation of probation rules is alleged, so few hold these reviews. Generally, judges haul a probationer into court only if a probation agent alleges a violation or if unusual circumstances in the case warrant it, such as scheduled payments to crime victims.

But Silkworth said he doesn't mind adding an hour or so a week to his workload in what amounts to stern encouragement, because he reasons some people need the inspiration.

Defense lawyers and prosecutors -- usually absent from the hearings -- applaud him. Though some probationers roll their eyes, others don't mind chatting with the judge for 10 minutes every six months.

"There is something more frightening about seeing a judge than seeing your probation officer," said criminal defense lawyer Gill Cochran.

"It gives a certain additional incentive to the defendant to do what he is supposed to do," said Anne Arundel State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee.

Probationers agree.

"Oh, there is an intimidation factor. He can put you in jail," said Marcell Franklin, 39, of Annapolis.He had his first review hearing last month, three months after leaving jail, where he was serving time on a drug conviction.

"It's kind of awkward. Once you get out and you're released, you don't want to see judges," he said.

Franklin has mixed feelings about the hearings. Although five years of semiannual visits with Silkworth will be tiresome, he said, he thinks it's a good idea for a judge to make sure a probationer does what is required. "On the other hand, it seems like it's a waste of time when the probation agent can fax him a report."

But Silkworth said some probationers need that carrot-and-stick mix of reinforcement -- praise that they are on the right track to create a new lifestyle and the warning that they risk a prison term if they fail.

Legal experts say that though they find Silkworth's hearings unusual, they agree that shining a spotlight on some probationers might inspire them to stay out of trouble long enough to turn their lives around.

"Particularly with Judge Silkworth, what you have is a judge who comes to the bench with a lot of experience as a lawyer and knows that some people are not closely enough supervised that he fears they will go back to a life with these problems," said defense lawyer Clarke F. Ahlers.

Many judges hold review hearings to look into possible probation violations, especially if court-ordered restitution isn't being paid.

Following in the footsteps of Court of Special Appeals Judge Raymond G. Thieme Jr., who held review hearings when he was an Anne Arundel Circuit judge, Silkworth does not ask probation officers or lawyers to attend, saying he does not want to add to their workload or force probationers to incur higher legal fees.

He usually brings in probationers with drug or alcohol problems because, he said, it is hard to kick an addiction and better to praise progress than to wait for a probation agent to allege a violation.

He said the quick conversation, guided by a checklist he drew up, ensures that probation is not unraveling administratively. During the chat, he reminds the defendant to pay attention to the terms of probation because the judge does.

"I put them on probation. I have an interest in seeing them succeed," Silkworth said.

Silkworth said he has not found any of the probationers he sees on a regular basis to be in violation of the terms of their release, although he has warned a few to get with the program.

Serving three years' probation for drug possession, a man who asked not to be named because he has been too ashamed to tell his teen-age child about his conviction, said Silkworth saved his life. "If he wants to see me every six months, that's fine," he said.

After two reviews, the probationer said he looks forward to the judge's personal attention, in large part because he has few people he can talk to about his probation. He said he likes telling the judge that leaving drugs behind has led to raises at work and made him a more attentive parent -- a lesson, he said, he can share with Silkworth but for now hides from his teen-ager.

Silkworth said even if some probationers are not entirely truthful with him, they know lies will surface in the form of missed meetings with probation officers and therapists, job loss, new arrests and positive drug tests.

Whether every six months or annually, some probationers have a steady date with Silkworth.

On a recent Friday afternoon, a probationer not only showed the judge his marriage certificate but introduced his bride. Another, asked whether he was working, wheeled around dramatically to display the back of his T-shirt, which bore his employer's logo. One said his life was so improved that he quit smoking cigarettes.

Franklin proudly told Silkworth that, having found a place to live and a job, he had applied to the Anne Arundel Community College culinary arts program.

"Yes, I remember you saying you wanted to be a chef," Silkworth said.

"It's been a dream of mine for a while. I guess I didn't have any motivation to go get it. Now I guess I'm ready," Franklin said.

But he had recently missed a substance abuse evaluation appointment. Silkworth cut to the bottom line: He gave Franklin 10 days to resolve the situation and get a message to him.

"If I don't hear from you in 10 days, you will hear from me," Silkworth told him to snickers from other probationers.

"I didn't see anything funny about that," Franklin said later.

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