New prison construction comes to halt Glendening strategy counts on increase in inmates slowing

Eye-opener for lawmakers

Jobs, education should take priority, governor contends

January 28, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Despite his promises to make streets safer and lock up violent offenders for longer sentences, Gov. Parris N. Glendening is doing something no one has dared to do for more than a decade: halt the flow of money for new prisons.

The capital budget Mr. Glendening released last week included nothing for new prison construction, only enough money to finish the Western Correctional Institution, a 1,296-bed medium security facility near Cumberland that is set to open this spring.

That was an eye-opener for lawmakers. Govs. Harry R. Hughes and William Donald Schaefer committed a half-billion dollars for prison construction over the past 10 years. The cost of running prisons has more than doubled from $281 million in 1987 to the $642 million proposed for next fiscal year.

And although Maryland's prisons continue to be among the most overcrowded in the nation, the Glendening administration is taking a huge gamble -- it is counting on building no new prisons for five years.

"The prison budget has become a black hole pulling resources from education and jobs," Mr. Glendening said of the administration's five-year plan for prisons.

"We can't afford to spend millions on a new prison and do what we need to do with jobs and schools."

Legislators had expected the governor's fiscal 1997 budget to include money to begin planning a new compound at Western. The second compound would double capacity at the site, a project that would eventually cost $108 million.

The decision not to even begin planning such a project drew criticism. A report issued by the legislature's Department of Fiscal Services suggested it could lead to "a severe prison bed shortage."

"There do not appear to be any indications that the growth in the prison population will slow or end," the report warned. "The anticipated increase in inmates may force the state to release more inmates from prison early."

In a briefing before a House committee last week, Public Safety ** and Correctional Services Secretary Bishop L. Robinson insisted that, despite 20 years of uninterrupted growth, the prison population may have leveled out.

Between 1990 and 1992, Maryland's prison population grew by 1,200 to 2,100 inmates each year, but in the past three years, growth has slowed to 400 to 850 annually. As of Thursday, the prisons contained 21,158 inmates, about 160 fewer than last summer.

"There may be growth, but not the growth rates we've seen," Mr. Robinson told the committee. But he admitted that the legislature's analysis might be right: "This is a business that can't be estimated with a high degree of accuracy."

The chief reason for the declining growth in inmate population is the rise of alternative sentencing. About 2,300 people are in the state's "Correctional Options" program, which puts nonviolent offenders in alternatives.

Prison experts have touted alternative sentencing for years as a more effective way to deal with those who commit nonviolent crimes. But its growing acceptance has been born more of financial necessity than prison reform.

Without Correctional Options, "I'd be out of beds right now," Mr. Robinson said.

But how many people are suitable for alternative sentencing? More than half the state's prison population is serving time for violent crimes. Many of the remainder are poor candidates for Options because of violence in their past or an inability to handle a highly structured program.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, called the administration's strategy "risky." Putting more people into alternative sentencing is the right thing to do, she said, but stopping construction for five years puts too much pressure on those programs.

"We can always put off construction, but to expect not to need it for five years is a mistake," said Senator Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat.

"You're going to have a federal judge come in and say that we are grossly overcrowded, and we're going to have to be putting violent criminals out on the street," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, also a Baltimore Democrat.

The administration's prison strategy would seem to contradict the get-tough attitude the governor displayed during his election campaign. Last summer, Mr. Glendening announced he would reject parole for inmates serving life sentences for murder and rape while he is governor.

Mr. Glendening also wants the General Assembly to approve a truth-in-sentencing law. The proposal could lead to the end of parole entirely, with criminals getting far less opportunity to serve partial sentences.

"On the one hand, the governor says we have to get tougher and public safety is a priority," said Del. Thomas E. Dewberry, a Baltimore County Democrat. "On the other hand, he takes this action which seems to contradict that."

Administration officials say the risk is overstated. At Western, there is room for a fifth housing unit in the prison, a 384-bed addition that could be erected in a year's time, Mr. Robinson said.

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