Prison reform that undermines itself

February 11, 1996|By Barry Rascovar

THE PROBLEM with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is that she doesn't remember Gordon Kamka. How could she? She didn't even move to Maryland until three years after Mr. Kamka's controversial reign as prison secretary ended.

Yet there is Lieutenant Governor Townsend pushing the same sort of prison ''reform'' that got Maryland in so much trouble.

For those too young to remember, Gov. Harry Hughes hired Mr. Kamka in 1979. Instead of constructing more prisons, Mr. Kamka decided ''we can't build our way out of the problem'' of overcrowding. Prison-building stopped. Alternative programs were proposed.

That seemed a sensible approach. But it ignored reality. A mushrooming prison population proved relentless. Not enough ''alternatives'' were put in place. The corrections department under Mr. Kamka was in shambles.

The prison surge was so great that dangerous inmates were shifted to minimum-security camps, thus creating explosive situations. Laxity in work-release programs led to embarrassing scandals.

Finally, Governor Hughes sent Mr. Kamka packing, then adopted a get-tough prison policy and went on a catch-up building binge.

Now comes Ms. Townsend, who has shaped a prison vision for Gov. Parris Glendening that looks like a return to the Kamka days. It is based on a sound notion, but it flunks the tests of practical politics and penal realities.

What ''alternatives?''

Just as Mr. Kamka declared ''no new prisons,'' Ms. Townsend believes there are better alternatives. The problem is that her administration isn't putting any of these ''alternatives'' in place.

Instead, a 33-member commission (so large it surely will be staff-driven) is supposed to create a plan. But the administration bill dictates the end result: a ''truth-in-sentencing'' system where the worst offenders get stiff terms but the vast number of offenders get shorter sentences with no parole.

That has led critics to charge that the administration's ''tough on criminals'' plan actually works to release more inmates faster.

While this commission is deliberating, the governor intends to do nothing about prison overcrowding or about the dearth of alternative programs. That omission could doom the state to years of catch-up construction.

When North Carolina went to a truth-in-sentencing system, its prison census soared. Setting up alternatives such as drug-treatment programs, day reporting centers and intensive probation is time-consuming and expensive.

The Townsend system has flaws. With no ''good-time served'' parole, inmates have little reason to remain passive, thus creating even more danger for guards. Judges are deprived of discretion at sentencing time. And the sentencing scheme can lump some people truly deserving of prison with minor offenders.

For instance, a North Carolina judge says that under his state's new program, TV evangelist Jim Bakker -- convicted of massive fraud involving hundreds of millions of dollars -- would not have spent a day behind bars: He had no prior record. As the judge noted, ''He'd be treated the same as a 17-year-old working at McDonald's who embezzles $15.''

Still, some criminologists feel that such an approach would rationalize our prison system so that dangerous criminals are locked up for long periods but lesser offenders don't take up expensive space.

The pitfall is that this could make the prison system budget-driven, not public-safety-driven. It is easier to balance the budget if you don't build another $100 million prison. But what do you do if existing prisons are overflowing and you haven't put money into alternatives? You push lesser offenders through the system as fast as you can because there are too few beds and programs for them.

Shades of Gordon Kamka.

The Townsend-Glendening approach is not getting a good reception. One influential lawmaker said, ''The whole thing is a mistake. It's misguided. Stopping prison construction and eliminating boot camp while you let the public believe you're getting tougher on criminals is a fraud.''

From a key legislator: ''It flies in the face of reality. How can you say you favor alternative sentencing when you close down a forestry camp and cut prison drug programs?''

Budget leaders already want the governor to reconsider firing 51 prison teachers, which even the state's corrections chief admits would add to prison overflow because inmates earn ''good time'' credits through these programs.

The prison population is still growing by 100 a month. A new state law requires longer terms, which exacerbates overcrowding. Demographics point to a surge in the age group most likely to commit crimes. And judges are handing out stiffer sentences. Given these facts, how can you stop planning for new prisons?

Unless the administration comes up with better answers, lawmakers aren't likely to embrace an idealistic ''truth-in-sentencing'' proposal that seems to make a bad situation worse.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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