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COMET uses GPS, polygraphs to keep tabs on sexual offenders
The Herald-Mail - 7/16/2017
Each year in Washington County, a number of people - nearly all of them men - are convicted of sexual offenses, with many sentenced to serve time in the county detention center, or years in a state prison.
The supervision of the offenders doesn't end with their release from confinement or the imposition of a suspended sentence.
Their sentences also include a period of probation or parole during which they are supervised through the Collaborative Offender Management Enforcement Treatment, or COMET, program.
Maryland Division of Parole and Probation agents work with the State's Attorney's Office, state Sex Offender Registry and treatment programs "to effectively supervise sex offenders in our community," said Aimee Pleasant, senior agent for the program in Washington County.
At any time, there are about a hundred people under COMET supervision here, she said.
"That's been fairly consistent in the years I've been supervising the caseload," said Pleasant, who has headed the program in Washington County since 2008.
Pleasant and Agent Kendra Moore handle the caseload of sex offenders, with Agent Jennifer Frankenberry assisting with supervision of some Level IV offenders, the lowest level of supervision.
Across Maryland, there were nearly 3,000 sex offenders under COMET supervision by 70 agents in May, according to Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Division of Parole and Probation.
The gamut of offenses that will place a person under COMET supervision includes first- and second-degree rape; attempted rape; sexual abuse of a minor; first-, second-, third- and fourth-degree sex offenses; and possession and distribution of child pornography, Pleasant said.
"Anyone released from jail or prison ... or sentenced from the court, is automatically a Level I supervisee," Pleasant said.
"I see these individuals weekly," either at the Parole and Probation office, or at their homes, workplaces or other sites, she said.
Level I supervisees also are required to check in daily, either in person at the office, or by telephone, Pleasant said. That level of intensive supervision typically lasts six months or longer, she said.
As a person progresses to lower levels of supervision, the reporting requirements are reduced, Pleasant said.
"All of that is contingent on compliance," she said.
The initial assessment of individuals coming into the program examines criteria such as each person's sex and age; whether they have had a relationship with a significant other for two or more years; prior arrests and convictions for sexual and nonsexual offenses; and whether the victim or victims were known or unknown to the perpetrator, Pleasant said.
Individuals are reassessed every three months, she said.
Men compose almost all of those under COMET supervision in the county, Pleasant said.
There currently is one woman is in the program, and "I've probably supervised a total of two since 2008," she said.
COMET has a number of tools to keep tabs on sexual offenders, including GPS monitors.
Pleasant said recently she has had as many as 10 people wearing the anklets at any one time.
Convicted sex offenders often have "exclusion zones" - places they are ordered to stay away from during their probation, Pleasant said.
Those can include the homes or workplaces of victims, schools, day care facilities and playgrounds, she said.
The travels of offenders with GPS anklets are monitored at least weekly, but "for some of the people, I'm checking them every day," Pleasant said.
Offenders can be on the devices for 90 days or more, she said.
Six years ago, John Lamont Garville, a paroled child rapist living in Hagerstown, was tracked by his GPS device to prohibited areas, according to a 2011 Herald-Mail Media story.
For that and other violations, Garville was returned to state prison, the story said.
In her experience, Pleasant said, few offenders violate exclusion zones while on probation.
"My biggest issue with people on GPS is the curfew," she said.
The GPS system monitors offenders for curfew compliance, which requires them to be home between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., with exceptions for work and treatment, Pleasant said.
The vast majority of those supervised by COMET complete probation without committing a new sex offense, Pleasant said.
She estimated that about five people in the program have been arrested for new sexual offenses during her nine years supervising the program.
Statewide, about 1 percent of offenders are arrested for committing a new sex offense while on probation, Vernarelli said.
More common are offenders violating probation by committing nonsexual criminal offenses, such as driving under the influence, Pleasant said.
Another supervision tool used by COMET is the polygraph, Pleasant said.
Two kinds of testing are done, with the tests administered by Maryland State Police.
"Instant-offense" polygraphs are used initially to determine if a person is being truthful about the offenses they were convicted of committing.
Polygraphs also are used for "maintenance monitoring" every six months, or as needed, to check if a person is in compliance with probation conditions, Pleasant said.
For example, if someone called probation claiming an offender violated probation, such as being with a minor, a polygraph can help determine if the allegation has any substance, she said.
For a person convicted of a child-pornography offense, the means of committing the crime usually is a computer or smartphone.
Judges have ordered computer monitoring and, in some cases, prohibited offenders from possessing any device capable of connecting to the internet.
"Child-pornography cases are a challenge because we have become so reliant on the internet," both at home and at work, Pleasant said.
"I tend to restrict internet usage to work only," as well as restricting the use of social media, she said.
COMET monitoring actually begins before an offender leaves jail or prison, Pleasant said.
Their status during confinement, even if they are in federal custody or, in some cases, serving a sentence in another state, is checked on a regular basis, she said.
Along with COMET supervision, probation conditions imposed on sexual offenders can include sex offender-specific treatment programs, Pleasant said.
Many offenses also mandate registration as a sexual offender for periods ranging from 15 years to life, according to the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.