No money for new prisons Inmate crunch: Governor fails to come up with plan to handle expected surge.

January 26, 1996

AT THE MOMENT, there's no crisis in Maryland's bulging prisons. A 1,300-bed facility opens in Cumberland late this summer. That is expected to relieve overcrowding elsewhere in the penal system. But looking down the road, there could well be a large surge in the number of state inmates -- and no place to put them.

That's why Gov. Parris N. Glendening's decision yesterday to delete capital funds for more prison beds makes little sense. At a time when state law requires inmates to serve longer sentences, when demographic trends point to a jump in violent crimes and when the governor wants to crack down harder on violent offenders, more bed space is absolutely essential.

Bishop L. Robinson, the top corrections official, says the state can offset any inmate surge through alternatives to incarceration. But there are no proposals along these lines in the governor's operating budget or in his legislative package. And with no new money to build more prisons in the capital budget released yesterday (two previous projects to create 1,100 beds were actually deleted), Governor Glendening could be setting the stage for an overcrowding crisis a few years from now.

Average daily population at state prisons is nearly 27,000. It has been growing at 800 to 1,000 additional inmates annually. Meanwhile, a 1994 law requires that violent offenders serve at least half their sentences, thus increasing the number of individuals who stay behind bars.

And if the governor gets his way, truth-in-sentencing legislation will eliminate parole eligibility for violent criminals. That requires more bed space, too.

Compounding the situation is a demographic shift in which the number of 15-to-24-year-olds is expected to grow. That's the age group most likely to commit violent crimes.

And yet the governor seems to be in denial. The rationale for the two prison projects deleted from the state's capital budget yesterday (plus a third new prison removed from future consideration) is that they aren't needed "due to reduced inmate population projections." That flies in the face of current trends and is strongly at odds with predictions from the legislature's own analysts.

But what the governor's avoidance of the prison dilemma does achieve is to free up bond money for a host of other projects in a tight budget year, especially school construction. The problem is that the governor may be setting up Maryland for big trouble. Prisons take years to design and construct. Mr. Glendening and Mr. Robinson know that. The "no build" solution is no solution at all. Unless they present a feasible alternative, they would be wise to reverse course and reserve some bond money this year for more prison beds.

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