Sweep aims at the most dangerous

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore police, prosecutors and other agencies are making the strict enforcement of probation rules a key component of their crime-fighting strategy, sweeping dangerous criminals off the streets for the slightest infractions.

But some city judges are wary of the plan, saying that it pushes them to give up their discretion in the courtroom.

Police and probation agents are asking the judges to sign onto an extraordinary program targeting about 960 of the area's most violent repeat offenders - those who have been arrested at least seven times, are involved with a gang or face handgun charges. Authorities want judges to hold suspects without bail for weeks or months before a formal hearing, and then to revoke suspended sentences and order additional prison time for even a minor probation violation.

The hesitancy by some judges worries police and state probation agents, who say it undermines efforts to target a core group of offenders believed to be responsible for a disproportionate amount of Baltimore's violence.

"I recognize the judges' need for flexibility, compassion and public safety," said Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. "That is why I wouldn't set some standard of 'do it for anybody.' I don't think violent offenders should get two or three chances to go out and get somebody.

"When [defendants] get out of line on a technical violation of probation, all we're asking is for the judges to do what they said they would do."

But several city judges said it is not that simple. They don't like to hold defendants without bail until there is a hearing to determine the seriousness of a probation violation. And even though they often accompany suspended sentences with a warning that the defendant may serve more time for such a violation, they want to carefully examine each case before sending someone to prison on a technicality.

"You cannot get by by saying, 'This is a person we think is a bad guy and let's go back and revisit his sentence,' " said Circuit Judge John P. Miller. "The technical violation, does it rise to the level of saying, 'I go back and resentence you on the original matter'? That is what you are saying. That is not the purpose of a violation of probation."

The interchange between judges and police wasclear in the case of Jerrod Rowlett, who racked up a dozen criminal charges at a young age and earned such a street reputation that Bealefeld knows him by name.

In court last year, Rowlett's defense attorney, Jerome Bivens, acknowledged his client's many interactions with the law: "I know he's been through the system. He is 23 years old, and he has almost as much experience as I do."

Rowlett's first arrest came when he was 16 and accused of first-degree murder, but he was found not guilty. The next year he was convicted of carrying a handgun, but the five-year sentence was suspended. He was found guilty of assault in 2005 and got another five-year suspended sentence.

In April 2006 city police raided a drug corner and charged him with dealing heroin. He made bail, and the following January a witness said Rowlett shot another man in the foot and thigh, injuring the victim so badly that he nearly had to have the leg amputated, according to court papers.

Rowlett pleaded guilty in both cases.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Lynn Stewart signed off on a plea deal that suspended the 15-year prison term, allowing him to walk away with only the time he had served while waiting for the deal, and five years' probation. This earned him a place on the state's year-old worst-offenders list.

The judge in Rowlett's case, who had agreed to the plea agreement, had stern words at his August hearing. "The court will work with you," Stewart told him. "But make no doubt about it, sir. If you violate the probation, you're going to be gone for a long time. Do you understand?"

Looking down, he mumbled "Yes."

In April, police arrested Rowlett again on a gun charge, and probation agents jumped at the chance to send him to prison. Prosecutors dropped the charges when the victim, a family member, recanted the story, but the probation agents still sought a violation.

Since Rowlett was in the target program, a state probation agent asked Stewart to imprison him anyway by issuing a "no bail" warrant, saying Rowlett failed to tell his agent about the arrest. Stewart declined to issue the warrant on May 7.

Twenty days later, Rowlett became a suspect in a midday shooting in Northeast Baltimore. He's now charged with attempted first-degree murder for the fourth time in his life, and he is off the streets - being held without bail until his trial.

Debbie Gonzalez, the probation supervisor who unsuccessfully pushed for him to be imprisoned in April, said: "I believe the judges really need to get on board. ... The people who are getting caught [on technical violations], they are the shooters. They are the ones being shot."

Stewart did not return three phone calls to her office for comment.

But other judges complained that they don't always get the full picture from probation agents and have to do their own research into a defendant's background. Others noted that if a probationer appears to be doing well - has found a job, for example - they'd hesitate to issue a no-bail warrant that would jeopardize the job.

In the same report in which Rowlett's probation agent asked for a no-bail warrant, he also told the judge that Rowlett was employed assembling furniture at the RoomStore in Catonsville and "reported to his agent regularly and presented a good attitude."

Pat McGee, the interim director of the Division of Parole and Probation, said: "We make a [warrant] request, and the judiciary appropriately makes its own decision. This is a different approach. ... We're saying, 'Hey, this is an opportunity. You can take advantage of it.' "

He said that in the last year city judges issued 291 warrants for technical offenses. One judge who has issued such a warrant is Circuit Judge Wanda Heard, who in an interview expressed mixed feelings about the targeting program.

She keeps three piles of probation folders stacked neatly on her desk, takes meticulous notes on each case and is known for adding her own conditions - she requires probationers to write a book report and keeps a large binder of the completed reports in her office.

"Just because a person has been arrested does not mean they've been convicted," she said. But, flipping through the piles of folders, she showed a reporter several warrants she had issued on non-criminal offenses.

"I look at what they did and what they are on probation for," she said.

She also sometimes says no. "I don't know that there is a quick fix by just issuing warrant," she said. "How long does the Police Department expect to be able to keep these people in jail?"

Bealefeld said that using probation violations is one tool law enforcement officers can use to combat crime and said it is being used narrowly.

"Many, many of [the people on probation] are trying to do right," he said. "This isn't open season on everyone in parole and probation."


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