Parole and probation agents in Maryland said Thursday that the state is woefully ill-equipped to deal with the hundreds of nonviolent prisoners who could be released next year under the state’s new criminal-justice reform law.
Union members expressed their concern at a news conference in Baltimore. They argued that many agents carry more than 100 cases and that the numbers are likely to climb when the new sentencing law goes fully into effect in October 2017.
Union officials say the agency is supposed to keep the caseload at about 82 cases per officer, but the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said there is no such standard, and union officials acknowledged that it is not a hard-and-fast rule.
“We are not able do the job we are called to do because we are inundated with work,” said Helen Humphries, a senior parole and probation agent in Baltimore.
She and other agents said they routinely have to take on tasks that should be completed by support staff, such as answering phone calls and receiving urine for analysis.
State officials estimate that about 1,600 prisoners serving long sentences will become eligible for early release starting in October 2017 as a result of the new law. Known as the Justice Reinvestment Act, the law was designed to reduce the prison population and costs and to help offenders reenter society.
Humphries said the department needs to address the shortage in order for the law to be successful.
“We want to uphold public safety, but we cannot do it . . . because we don’t have enough staff,” she said.
Gary McLhinney, he corrections department’s director of professional standards, said the state is hiring agents and will be prepared to deal with the new law.
“That assessment is simply not true,” McLhinney said of the union’s charges. He said the state plans to hire 60 agents, who will enter a training academy in August.
“I don’t know why they are saying this when they were briefed on the issue two weeks ago,” he said.
Both McLhinney and union officials said the Division of Parole and Probation has been understaffed for years, dating back to the previous administration.
But union leaders said the problem has recently worsened. There were 14 fewer parole and probation agents in April than there were in January. There are supposed to be 695 agents, according to the union, but 67 positions are vacant.
Seven of those vacancies are in the process of being filled.
“They are trying to hire, but they are just not doing a good job of it,” union spokesman Jeff Pittman said.
Last month, the union that represents Maryland correctional officers said its facilities are short about 1,000 employees.