Time to re-think prison policies Flawed proposal: Governor's 'no-build' plan perplexes legislators.

March 04, 1996

WHEN TWO KEY committee chairmen express concern about the governor's "no-build" prison program, it is time for the administration to re-think its position. The plan has some commendable features, but it isn't practical.

Yes, revamping the way prisoners are sentenced is helpful. But while a panel debates this complex matter, the governor needs a plan for handling the state's overflowing inmate population. You can't halt prison construction.

Yet that is what the administration proposes. There is no budget money for new male prisons. And yet the state's penal population continues to climb by 600 a year.

The administration says a new prison opening in Cumberland this summer will take care of the immediate problem while sentencing guidelines are studied and then reformed next year. But the 1,300 beds in Cumberland won't even handle existing overflow. Two prisons are 900 inmates above their court-ordered limits. Another 1,000 inmates are jammed into gyms, trailers and day rooms. Add in 600 new convicts and you still have a severe bed shortage.

That's the message lawmakers politely delivered to administration officials at a recent hearing. Legislators also complained that the governor has failed to increase his budget for prison alternatives. It doesn't make sense. As Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan put it, judges are in a bind at sentencing time because "there are insufficient alternatives" to prison.

The administration notes that it has been successful in enlarging its Correctional Options program to slow the growth of the prison population. But such diversions are not appropriate in all cases. The program clearly cannot be widened enough to eliminate the overcrowding.

Legislators are unlikely to give the administration what it wants unless the governor faces up to the need for more prisons this year. And they are unlikely to give serious consideration to sentencing reforms that call for prison alternatives unless these options already exist.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening needs to bring some real-world practicality to his prison proposal. The demand for more inmate beds won't disappear in the near term. The demand for alternative programs won't lessen, either. The administration ought to recognize these realities and address them immediately -- before it is forced to act by an angry legislature.

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