A former Maryland probation officer was arrested yesterday on federal charges that she extorted money from offenders under her supervision in exchange for favorable treatment.
Federal prosecutors say nearly two dozen convicted drunken drivers paid hundreds of dollars to Yolanda Renee Johnson to have their probation requirements eased or to avoid being reported for a violation.
If the charges are true, law experts said, Johnson's actions likely undermined not only the probation system but the health of the offenders under her watch and public safety overall.
Johnson, 33, of the 1500 block of Sheffield Road in Baltimore, had her initial appearance in U.S. District Court yesterday. She declined to comment after the proceedings.
Prosecutors say that Johnson monitored drunken drivers for the Division of Parole and Probation's "drinking and driving monitor program" when she began the extortion.
The monitor program, in which drunken-driving offenders are supposed to be regularly supervised, is considered by judges to be an alternative to incarceration. Its probation officers are required to meet regularly with offenders, verify their attendance at alcohol treatment and education programs, help ensure they have stopped drinking, and oversee urinalysis or breath tests.
The monitors also are supposed to contact the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration and the court system when someone under their supervision violates court-ordered probation requirements.
Instead, prosecutors said, between December of last year and August, Johnson was demanding payoffs.
"That's a pretty severe charge," said Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore. "It undermines the public's confidence that justice is being served and disseminated in a nonpartisan fashion."
Johnson was indicted last week by a federal grand jury. It is not clear from the indictment whether prosecutors think she retaliated against offenders who did not pay up. But the indictment says 23 individuals gave her payments ranging from $60 to $325.
Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the state's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said that Johnson resigned from her job in mid-September. He said he could not comment further on her departure because it was "a personnel matter."
However, he noted that the department's internal investigative unit helped Baltimore County police and the FBI in the investigation.
Drunken-driving awareness advocates said that well-run probation is essential for rehabilitating offenders.
"I've had drunk drivers say to me that being arrested is the best thing that ever happened to them," said Wendy Hamilton, the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "Something like [this allegation] diminishes the opportunity of the offenders to take responsibility for their offenses."
There were 281 alcohol-related traffic deaths in Maryland last year, according to prosecutors' statistics.
"A convicted DWI offender who is allowed to avoid court-mandated treatment and supervision will remain untreated and undeterred from continuing to drive on state and federal highways while intoxicated and poses a significant hazard," the indictment reads.
In court yesterday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Marty J. Clarke and defense lawyer Gregory Gilchrist agreed that Johnson should be allowed to remain free while she waits for trial. She is likely to be arraigned next week.