Prisons without Bars

May 25, 1993

Maryland's prison system is so jammed with inmates that the state's public safety secretary now says it is "overwhelmed" and "dysfunctional." He wants the state to try other alternatives for dealing with nonviolent inmates.

Coming from Bishop L. Robinson, these comments represent a sea change in penal philosophy. Mr. Robinson, state public safety chief since 1987, is a former city police commissioner and a firm law-and-order man. Yet even he now admits that building more and more prisons to lock up all the new offenders isn't the answer.

Most encouraging has been the state's experience with home detention and boot camp. Confining offenders to their homes and tracking their movements with electronic devices works. The recidivism rate is low (only 20 percent) and it costs a fraction of the cost of incarceration ($18 a day versus $44). Boot camp, meanwhile, has also worked. More than 720 prisoners have completed Maryland's paramilitary training and only 103 have returned to prison for parole violations. The normal recidivism rate is 40 percent.

With an additional 700 inmates expected to enter the prison system this coming fiscal year (bringing the total to 24,639 on an average day), Maryland is faced with two choices: keep building $100 million mega-prisons that don't seem to stem the crime wave, or experiment with other options. We don't need expensive prisons for most nonviolent offenders: Penitentiaries should be used for the hard-core criminals exclusively.

Maryland officials should look closely at what New York City is doing. Officials there are putting less risky offenders on probation and monitoring their progress via kiosks similar to automated teller machines. High-tech video and voice devices will let officials interview and identify offenders electronically. Meanwhile, an intensive therapy program will be required for all violence-prone criminals on probation. The goal is to drastically cut the recidivism rate while saving taxpayers money.

We know that warehousing offenders doesn't work. Mr. Robinson appears ready to try other options. That's a positive step forward. As one national expert on corrections recently put it, "It's not a question of being soft. It's a question of solving a problem before it eats us alive."

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