Prisons boss prefers alternatives

Q&A

August 03, 1993|By Michael James | Michael James,Staff Writer

Whether it's parole, home detention, work-release or passes to visit their families, most convicted felons eventually earn the right to walk out the prison gates -- a fact that often puts prison officials under intense public scrutiny.

No one understands that better than Richard A. Lanham Sr., the commissioner of Maryland's Division of Correction, who has heard people yell "lock 'em up and throw away the key" more times than he'd care to hear.

In 1993, Mr. Lanham and the prison system he heads have had a fair share of controversy. There was the uproar over 54-year-old Sam Veney, a cop-killer granted a weekend pass from prison to (( visit his family, and the anger over 40-year-old Rodney G. Stokes, a convicted murderer on work-release who fatally shot his girlfriend and then killed himself.

Mr. Lanham responded to those controversies by moving all 134 inmates serving life sentences out of the state's prerelease system, thereby removing lifers from work release, furlough programs and lesser-security prisons. Those inmates will remain medium-security prisons while a policy review is completed.

But, despite his decision to take lifers out of prerelease, which he deemed as necessary to maintain public confidence, Mr. Lanham remains a staunch advocate for alternatives to prison.

Question: Why shouldn't a life sentence, or a 20-year sentence, or some other definite penalty as prescribed by law be exactly that? What led to -- and what justifies keeping -- all the modifications to such sentences?

ANSWER: A life sentence is not natural life. People have the impression that a person gets sentenced to life, and they'll come out in a box.

Unless it's life without parole, Maryland law says that after a number of years, the inmate can start to work down through the system.

If people want criminals to go to jail for life and never come out, the law has to be changed. But if that happened, people have to face the reality that we've now got 20,000 inmates -- 1,600 with life sentences -- and it costs money to keep them in.

Maryland since 1987 has spent well in excess of $500 million just building prisons, on top of the $360 million in operating costs. If you want to keep sending people into the prisons and keeping them there, sooner or later we're going to break the bank. Who's going to pay for it? People say they don't want to pay for it in taxes. They want cuts in taxes.

Q: Dealing with lawbreakers has become one of Maryland's most costly -- as well as one of its most talked-about public issues. Many citizens would favor a simplistic "lock-'em up and throw away the key" approach. But that's clearly not consistent with Maryland's philosophy of seeking other punishments. How can those two points of view be reconciled?

A: Prison should be for those individuals who have committed heinous, violent crimes, or have exhibited a lifestyle of continuous law violations. At least 40 percent of those coming into the Maryland prison system are there because of minor drug activity. And that's what's costing the system.

What are you going to do with those people?

Most have been into court a number of times and gotten probation and minor sentences. So you don't have them that long, and what you're doing is just moving them in and out of the prisons. You're taking up bed space that is better used for the hardened violent criminals.

We're much better off trying to find a way to salvage their lives and make these lesser offenders better citizens.

Billions have been spent the last 10 years on the war on drugs and, as far as I'm concerned, the war on drugs was a failure. All we did was lock people up. We never gave these people the carrot, i.e., the intensive drug treatment they should have had, or the intensive job skills training, and so forth.

We don't want to end up like Florida or Texas, where federal courts imposed a cap, meaning if you take 100 in the front door you've got to let 100 out the back. So sooner or later, the nation as a whole has to realize that lock-'em-up is not going to solve the crime problem. Locking 'em up and throwing away the key for lesser crimes just isn't working.

Q: Keeping increasing numbers of lawbreakers at home with some kind of computer-based monitoring rather than institutionalized behind steel doors seems to make sense financially. But what do you say to law-abiding citizens who see such practices as coddling the criminal element, not to mention increasing risks to the general citizenry?

A: The way we do home detention, it's not a front-end program; it's a rear-end program. You get it as you come out of the institution. These are people who have already served some type of incarceration.

We screen them very carefully. Nobody goes on home detention until they've gone through at least a four-stage review process, with me being the fourth stage.

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