In a two-story office building near the airport in Gaithersburg, the only program of its kind in the state was starting its monthly session. Here, at 6:30 on a Wednesday night, men and women convicted of crimes but given oversight instead of jail time were learning how to be on probation.

The officers call it "orientation," and the term, more often associated with college freshmen or the first day of work at a big corporation, is now being applied to those in the criminal justice system.

To house an inmate costs $22,000 a year, said Department of Corrections spokesman Gene Farmer. To put a convict on probation costs about $2.35 a day. If these officers can figure out how to push people through the probation system successfully the first time around, without kicking them into -- or back into -- jail, they will save the state a hefty sum.

"We're trying it to see if it works," Farmer said. "We want to fine-tune it and perfect it."

Inspired by the example set by probation officers in the District and in Arizona and other states, the officers at the Gaithersburg office of Maryland's Division of Parole and Probation decided to do something extra for criminals ordered by the justice system into the agents' care and started the program four months ago.

The idea is to help explain what probation is, how it works and how to ace it. The one-hour class, given to a new group of probationers and parolees every month, is meant to "give tips to help them get through probation," Farmer said.

Malcolm MacDermid, a field supervisor in the office, said: "People go to court, and a lot of times, it's the first time they've been there. They get sentenced to something, but they don't know what it is." Next thing they know, their "attorney drops them off," and they're left with a stack of bureaucratic papers that don't make sense to them. They can't always rely on a thorough introduction from their parole or probation officer, either, because "agents have too many cases, and sometimes they gloss over" all the particulars, MacDermid said.

That's where this class comes in.

It's important for the probationers and parolees to get to the point where "we're all on the same page" and to know "we want you to be successful," said agent Amy Bransford.

Setting Goals

This night, when class began, 11 people had come. Five minutes later, three more showed up. Ten minutes into class, a couple more straggled in. Among those assembled, five were women. Ages ranged from 18 to 48. When asked who was on probation for the first time, six raised their hands.

"What do you hope you get out of this?" Bransford asked. She stood at the front of the room and brandished a fat blue marker over poster-sized paper. Working her way around the room, she wrote down the answers the people in the audience gave:

Get off with no problems.

Stay out of jail.

Be more responsible.

Soon Bransford reached a woman who refused to answer the question. She was sulking, clearly annoyed, and derisive about the idea that probation could be a benefit. She told Bransford that, frankly, she had no idea what she could get out of this.

MacDermid, a tall, red-haired man with a mustache and a regal demeanor, sat at the front and asked the room calmly, "Is there anything probation can do for you?"

The group was silent. MacDermid and the others knew that, for the most part, the people assembled saw their probation officers as the enemy. In the cat-and-mouse game that is crime vs. justice, these are opposing teams, and at this point in the presentation the POs -- probation and parole officers -- were still seen as the no-good, gotcha, kick-you-into-jail kind of people.

The agents waited for an answer. When none came, Bransford finally said, "We'll just go with don't know." She wrote it on the paper, then hung it at the front of the class, near a Division of Parole and Probation sign graced with the motto "One Day at a Time."

Not long after, Bransford told the group, "When you're on probation, your job is to do everything the judge ordered you to do, and our job is to make sure you do."

Given that probation dates to 1666 in Maryland, MacDermid said, those in the group were experiencing nothing new or even particularly different. With 1,962 offenders' files and 1,158 active cases, the northern Montgomery office's 13 agents stay busy.

Sometimes too busy. One question during the session -- "What happens if you can't get ahold of your PO?" -- prompted a knowing smirk from one of the agents at the edge of the room.

"It's a problem for new people to get a grasp of. . . . They would rather call and use that as an excuse and not come in," Farmer said. And while "agents are in the field, in court, in training -- and sometimes they even get a day off!" -- the program is designed to lessen their load, too, Farmer said. The better prepared their probationers and parolees are, the easier it is to supervise them.

And there's a lot to cover in the hour-long orientation.

The strange machinations that are the court system -- official "probation/supervision" forms with, on the first page alone, 33 boxes to be checked or left blank -- were nowhere more plain than when agent Donna Billeter started talking about urine tests.

"Does everyone know the difference between a positive urine and a negative urine?" she asked.

Again, the room was silent.

"Which is good?" prodded MacDermid.

After another pause, an answer finally floated to the front of the room. "Negative is good."

Made It Through

Then, the agents introduced the evening's main speaker: William Carter, a quiet but firm-spoken 38-year-old man who five days earlier had gotten his first job in years, at a shipping company he could walk to from his home. Not long ago, he was on probation, just like the people in the room -- and he was here to tell them how the system had worked for him.

He's a compact, muscular man, with very short hair and a gray T-shirt tucked and belted into his black jeans. He wore a pendant of the Virgin Mary around his neck, a gift from his wife.

"My drug of choice was crack cocaine for 20 years," he said before the class started.

By 7:15 p.m., he was leaning forward in his chair at the front of the room and starting his talk.

"I got here from drinking and drugging," he said. "It didn't start eating out of trash cans and sleeping in alleys and abandoned cars, like it wound up. It started out in high school, partying after football games." Soon, he continued, he was smoking PCP, "breaking all my mama's windows in the home, I had so much PCP in me."

A woman with her hair pulled back into a ponytail wiped her hand across her face and closed her eyes. A man at the back of the room squinted his eyes with concentration and leaned forward.

Carter continued: He used to spend $500 a day smoking crack -- $500 of his own money, others' money and money from stuff he stole. "I was stealing food from grocery stores, from 7-Elevens. I knew what [the dealers] wanted out of Nordstrom and out of the malls." He knew, he added, what kind of steaks his dealers liked best.

And though he has been clean for 18 months, he told the group, "sometimes I get funny when the weather turns. It gets 90 degrees, and I wanna tear my shirt off and drive around to my old spots."

Because his wife had health insurance, once he got into probation he also got into a good treatment program. His probation started off okay, but he soon tripped up, he told the group. His agent, Billeter, was ready to kick him back to jail.

"I didn't like that 23-hours-a-day lockdown," he said. "I really didn't want to do that." But the system was bigger than -- and wise to -- his antics, and Carter finally gave in and got serious about narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous.

"Once you finish this," he said, sounding hopeful and promising, "what're you going to do to keep what you've got?"

"Triggers," he continued, "they'll still be there. Just because I got sober, the beer stores ain't closed down, and they're still smoking crack in the woods."

He finished, "You've got to want it . . . and take personal responsibility."

'Not Alone'

At the end of every class, students fill out anonymous evaluations, which are surprisingly and overwhelmingly positive.

While some complained that too much time is spent on substance abuse and "break the cycle" issues -- "not everyone is here for drugs/alcohol," someone wrote after the June class, and "not everyone has been charged for drugs therefore, it's useless to come to class" -- others seemed surprised by what they got out of the program.

Many wrote in small, cramped letters, printing words and preferring short phrases to long, involved sentences:

I don't want to be here, but I did learn a lot. From this.

Thanks for this class.

You're on probation anyway. This session makes you feel more comfortable with the probation.

It helps to understand your not alone Thank you.

Department of Corrections officials Gene Farmer, right, and Malcolm MacDermid helped initiate the class for convicts entering probation. "We're trying it to see if it works," Farmer said. "We want to fine-tune it and perfect it."William Carter, left, who recently had gotten his first job in years after a period on probation, addresses a Department of Corrections class, above, last month in Gaithersburg. "Once you finish this," he said, referring to the probation system, "what're you going to do to keep what you've got? . . . You've got to want it . . . and take personal responsibility." Corrections officials hope that the "orientation" sessions, which they began four months ago, will help ease the confusion some convicts experience after they are sentenced, and they say the state will save huge sums of money if more convicts on probation can avoid being put in jail.