No vacancy at the jail Baltimore County: Ruppersberger won't build jails, so where will he put inmates?

June 11, 1996

THE NUMBER OF arrests in Baltimore County is rising and will keep rising as County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger puts more police officers on the street. More arrests mean more people headed to the county's two jail facilities -- which are so full that inmates regularly sleep on the floor on portable plastic beds.

Nonetheless, Mr. Ruppersberger has decided not to build new jails, for valid reasons. The county can't afford it; education, police and maintenance of infrastructure are the priorities right now. But something has to be done with all those inmates.

In a joint venture with Harford County, the county is exploring a boot camp for young offenders, but its chances appear tenuous. For now, the county has left the jail problem to corrections officials, who say there's really only one answer -- expansion of alternative methods of incarceration.

This is more effective than throwing everybody behind bars, especially at the local level, where most inmates awaiting trial or serving sentences are not violent. At the same time, it demands something of the public. It means relinquishing the "lock 'em up" mentality. It also means accepting that some people accused or convicted of fairly serious offenses, but who appear to be good risks, may not stay behind bars in order to open up cells for the incontrovertibly dangerous.

In Baltimore County, corrections officials are looking beyond penny-ante offenders for candidates for alternative programs. None of the inmates selected has ever caused a problem, due largely to scrupulous screening by the corrections staff. Still, such systems take a risk.

And no matter how innovative corrections officials may be, it's foolish to think the county can avoid ever spending money on this problem, or that it can indefinitely delay planning how it will manage its inmate population.

If arrests continue at the current pace, the county will need additional staff and some kind of additional facilities -- a day reporting center, perhaps -- in the not-too-distant future.

Mr. Ruppersberger's decision not to pump millions into a jail right now is sound. But something has to be done with all these inmates.

It's not too soon to figure out what that should be.

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