Criminal defendants under the supervision of privately run home-detention programs in Maryland were reported missing on 360 occasions during July, according to the initial reports filed under a new state law.
The reports were the first submitted since the state assumed a more active role in regulating the private detention firms, which keep track of their clients with electronic devices such as ankle bracelets equipped with radio transmitters.
Until this year, state officials were uncertain how many defendants were enrolled in private programs or whether they were allowed freedom to move about without supervision.
In 1996, an armed robbery suspect allegedly raped three women and robbed two others while in the care of a home-detention company in Prince George's County. In June, a Suitland man who was enrolled in a different Prince George's home-detention program was charged with murder in the death of a Capitol Heights woman.
Reports filed under a law that took effect July 1 indicate that seven home-detention programs were responsible for monitoring 374 people that month. Those companies told the state that on 360 occasions, they lost track of defendants.
The bulk of the cases -- 240 violations -- were reported for people who were missing for less than two hours. In 114 cases, however, defendants were unaccounted for between two and 24 hours. And six people ran away for at least a full day, according to statistics provided to the Maryland Commission on Correctional Standards.
"That's horrendous," said state Sen. Leo E. Green (D-Prince George's), who sponsored the 1998 legislation that imposed the reporting regulations. "That's not a good report card at all. We'll have to revisit this law in the next session [of the General Assembly], if not before."
The law, which requires home-detention companies to be licensed, bonded and regulated, did not go into effect until July. The Commission on Correctional Standards is still working on specific standards to govern the industry.
The commission is "concerned" by the number of violations reported in July, said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
"We are analyzing the numbers and telling the companies that their offenders must be in compliance and that they must deal with it stringently," he said. "The private home-detention companies need to be vigilant [and] must understand there is a public safety issue in dealing with these defendants."
Sipes said it is unclear how serious some of the violations are. Some of the defendants who were reported missing for less than two hours, he said, may have merely arrived home from work a few minutes after their curfew. Other violations could be the result of equipment failures, he suggested.
He also said that some companies are aggressively reporting even the smallest violations, while others are reporting only the most flagrant offenders.
Rex Smith, a criminal justice consultant who has lobbied on behalf of some private home-detention firms, said that both the companies and their clients need to be held more accountable.
In the past, Smith said, some firms made up their own rules as they went along, granting up to four hours of "free time" to defendants each week during which they could come and go as they please and ignore curfews set by judges. One company, he said, gave clients a "Christmas break."
"I think home detention can still be very effective," he said. "But the scrutiny needs to be increased."
Local governments in the Washington region have been running home-detention programs since the mid-1980s in an attempt to reduce crowding in jails and prisons. Private companies began offering similar services when those programs began to fill up.
The private firms receive no money from the courts or other government agencies; rather, they collect money directly from the defendants, usually $8 to $12 a day.
There are no state regulations governing what kinds of defendants are eligible for home detention. For instance, there is no law saying that accused murderers or robbers are prohibited. It is up to judges to decide who can serve their time in home detention, what specific conditions they must follow or what happens if they break the rules.
In general, Sipes said, most people on home detention are "low-level offenders" who are on probation for nonviolent crimes.
Companies are not required to include in their monthly reports what charges their clients are facing or what sentences they are serving. Nor must they report if their clients have been arrested for other crimes, although Sipes said the commission may decide to change that.
Some lawmakers said the number of violations does not come as a surprise.
"The basic problem has always been that there are no definitive enforcement mechanisms or penalties for those who don't obey the rules," said Del. James W. Hubbard (D-Prince George's). "There's really nothing that says anybody has to do anything. There are certain guidelines that need to be set."
State officials declined to release copies of the companies' monthly reports, so it was impossible to tell which firms were reporting the most violations. Of the seven companies currently operating in Maryland, two are in Prince George's, one is in Montgomery, two are in Baltimore County and two are in Baltimore City.
Trena Wagner, the owner of Monitoring Services Inc., a private home-detention firm based in Upper Marlboro, said her company oversees about 40 clients and had no violations to report in July. More recently, one violation was recorded, she said.
"Everybody knows they're being really tightly monitored now," Wagner said of her clients. "Perhaps they've been on their best behavior."