The murder of Evelyn Player, the 69-year-old devoted church volunteer found stabbed to death in a bathroom at Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore last month was among the more shocking and disturbing of the more than 325 homicides recorded this year. But certain elements of the incident proved not so unusual once a suspect was in custody. The man charged in the killing, Manzie Smith, 62, has a long history of violent criminal behavior as well as diagnosed serious mental health disorders and had recently been under the supervision of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. It is that last circumstance — time under community supervision — that weaves its way through Baltimore’s gun violence, both victim and perpetrator, like a poisonous snake.
More than one year ago, the Maryland General Assembly’s Department of Legislative Services took a close look at the state agency’s Division of Parole and Probation and found a variety of shortcomings. In a two-month period in early 2020, investigators found that 37% of victims and suspects in city murders and non-fatal shootings were under DPP supervision at the time. What else did they have in common? The study found these individuals were far less likely to be in compliance with the terms of their parole or probation or mandatory release, missing required meetings or work or school commitments, for example. Yet, in a majority of cases from these two months, DPP officers failed to follow up with the individuals in violation. As a result, not meeting the requirements of parole had no serious consequences for them. The opportunity to intervene, perhaps prevent gun violence, had been lost.
We can’t claim that parole officers can all by themselves solve Baltimore’s persistently high homicide rate or even could have prevented the death of Evelyn Player. They are not capable of predicting every crime any more than city police officers are. But they are an important part of the solution, particularly to the degree that informed, pragmatic and appropriately resourced supervision of ex-offenders has been shown to significantly reduce recidivism. In other words, Maryland has to have enough parole and probation agents, and they have to be smarter about their work, recognizing threats and finding methods to guide and encourage those under their supervision to a better path. As a 2020 Pew Charitable Trusts funded study documented, the states that have chosen such a strategy have reduced crime.
And where does Maryland stand? With high caseloads in community supervision and recent efforts to reduce them thwarted by a loss of employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a legislative budget analysis earlier this year, 129 agent and monitor positions were open in 2021, which is nearly 14% below authorized staffing and a significant uptick from the 96 vacancies reported in late 2019. That makes the vacancy rate for community supervision agents actually higher than that of correctional officers, which was widely regarded to be a “crisis” for state prisons. Nor does the state agency seem particularly troubled by this lack of community supervision. In his official response to the DLS evaluation, DPSCS Secretary Robert L. Green largely dismissed the conclusions calling the report an “overly simplified and very narrow look at an extremely complex criminal justice and public safety system.”
Nor have these problems within the Division of Parole and Probation gotten much attention from Gov. Larry Hogan. He would clearly rather have Marylanders believe that homicides can be reduced by the work of city police and Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, with whom he appears happy to spar, or perhaps with mandatory minimum sentencing (despite evidence to the contrary), but apparently not by anyone under his employ. That may work for him politically, but it doesn’t do much to lower Baltimore’s homicide rate.
We’re not looking for the governor to take the full blame here (as much as the high city homicide numbers do track his time in office). And Secretary Green is correct that public safety issues are often complex. But what we would like to see in 2022 is an honest effort to upgrade community supervision, to fill vacancies, to reduce caseloads, to explore better ways to get agents focused more on high-risk violent offenders like Manzie Smith and help keep innocents like Evelyn Player out of harm’s way before and after parolees are released from state supervision. If Mayor Brandon Scott and State’s Attorney Mosby are going to be held accountable, Governor Hogan must be called out for his actions, and inactions, as well.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.