No more prisons

May 08, 1992

The word from a gubernatorial task force is direct and sensible: Stop sending so many convicts to prisons and stress, instead, greater use of home detention and community service. It is advice that Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the state legislature should applaud.

Small steps have already been taken. The governor pushed public safety secretary Bishop L. Robinson to build a "boot camp" for young inmates to instill discipline and a sense of responsibility. So far, the camp seems to be working. Mr. Schaefer also has been a proponent of experimenting with home monitoring of convicts.

But far more has to be done. Maryland can no longer afford to erect dozens of new, costly prisons. The expenses are overwhelming, soaking up cash that should be supporting far more worthwhile social programs.

For instance, the state has approved some $11 million to plan and design a 2,500-bed medium-minimum security facility, probably near Cumberland. Total cost of the project: $192 million. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Once the prison opens, all the manpower and expenses will eat up $33 million in funds each year out of the operating budget. That's more than enough money to pay all the general-fund expenses for the entire Department of the Environment each year. The capital outlay is nearly enough to build two new baseball stadiums comparable to Oriole Park.

Clearly, a new way of dealing with criminals must be adopted. Prison time should be reserved for the hard-core types, those who have committed violent and dangerous crimes. For other offenders, Maryland needs to develop more work-release programs, more community service programs for inmates and a vastly expanded home monitoring alternative. The Baltimore City Detention Center, for example, could quickly end its overcrowding problem once a new state law lets it expand home monitoring from 136 offenders to 600 offenders next month.

It costs, on average, $25,000 a year to keep a prisoner in jail. For those who do not pose a danger to society, this is a waste of taxpayer dollars. These men and women still should be punished, but in a way that does not burden society. With Maryland's inmate population still growing by 100 a month, we have little choice. We're got to search for ways that prove more cost-effective and also reduce the number of repeat offenders. Simply building more and more prisons is bankrupting the state.

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