New prison philosophy?

May 27, 1993

Seven years into his job as Maryland's public safety secretary, Bishop L. Robinson has reversed course: he's now a fan of alternatives to the state's costly prison expansion plan. He says he would like to see 30 percent of the state's inmates dealt with through non-incarceration.

We applaud Mr. Robinson's turnaround. It makes no sense to build a seemingly endless chain of large new prisons. The expense to taxpayers is enormous and the results are counter-productive: prisons don't stop criminals from returning to their former lifestyles once they are released.

Doing "hard time" ought to be reserved for the truly serious offenders -- the murderers and rapists and other violent offenders. But for the burglars, the minor drug users and other nonviolent offenders without long criminal records, options to prison should be pursued.

The state's successful experience with setting up a "boot camp" to instill discipline and an appreciation for hard work indicates new approaches are viable. Using electronic monitoring devices in a home detention program also has lived up to expectations. Both programs -- especially the home monitoring -- should be expanded. The recidivism rate has been remarkably low.

Maryland's public safety budget has risen 14.5 percent in the past three years, even during the recession. Next year, the total will reach $680 million. The average daily inmate population is expected to reach 24,600 over the next 13 months. By comparison, there were 11,000 prisoners locked up in state facilities 10 years ago.

New York City is embarking on an ambitious prison alternative Maryland might consider. More resources will be devoted to first-time parolees who are most violence-prone. They will attend intensive therapy sessions four hours a week -- a far cry from the occasional check-ins with a probation officer now required. The hope is that far fewer of these probationers will return to a life of crime.

At the same time, New York officials are using high-tech electronic monitoring for less risky offenders on probation: They will report to probation officers via automated kiosks -- similar to automated teller machines -- for a video identity check and a voice-recognition test. This could save on manpower as well as money.

It is time for Maryland to experiment aggressively with innovative approaches to punishing those who break the law. Jail time ought to be reserved for the worst cases. Why build $100 million prisons every few years to warehouse all the pickpockets and minor offenders? There are more effective and cheaper ways to penalize these individuals. Mr. Robinson, belatedly, has seen the light.

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