Alternatives sought to cut jail crowding Programs that keep defendants at home favored in Balto. Co.

Portable beds in use

Increase in inmates expected to require new facility by 2000

June 23, 1996|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

At the crowded Baltimore County Detention Center, 50 inmates are sleeping on portable beds -- and the way jail administrator James M. Dean figures it, by the turn of the century inmates will be spilling out of small double-bunked cells into the hallways.

But Dean also sees a way out, with an expansion of alternative-sentencing programs and home monitoring that would shrink the numbers needing three meals and a mattress.

"Since 1988, we have had an increase of 100 inmates each year," Dean said. "If this keeps up, inmates could sue, and the federal courts will intervene. We really need to come up with more ways to close the front door and open the back door."

The county's problem is not unique.

"Most detention centers have overcrowding problems," said LaMonte E. Cooke, president of the Maryland Correctional Administrators Association and director of the 104-bed Queen Anne's County Detention Center in Centreville.

"Last year we got a 24-bed addition, and if we did not get that, we would have a problem with overcrowding," Cooke said.

The crowding problem -- from Towson to Centreville and beyond -- is in part a reflection of the increasing number of arrests each year, experts say. In Baltimore County, for example, arrests of adults rose from 21,948 in 1994 to 22,930 last year.

While many are released by a District Court commissioner without spending a night in jail, the others quickly fill up available beds.

About 10,000 beds are spread throughout the state's 24 political subdivisions whose jails and detention centers -- unlike the long-term corrections role of state prisons -- house those awaiting trial or serving short sentences.

In Baltimore County, Dean said, a consultant studying the rate of population growth in the detention center forecast a need by the year 2000 for a new 2,000-bed jail, in addition to the existing jails in Towson, which hold about 1,000 inmates. Such a project could cost $100 million, he said.

It would not be the county's first jail-building effort in recent years.

The oldest county jail dates to 1854, with an addition built in 1955.

In 1981, a 326-bed jail on Kenilworth Avenue opened -- intended as a replacement for the old 269-bed facility at Towsontown Boulevard and Bosley Avenue. But the old facility didn't stay closed -- instead it is used mostly to house female prisoners. About 160 inmates were there last week.

When a 216-bed addition was opened at the Kenilworth Avenue jail two years ago, it was filled immediately. And last week, about 50 inmates were sleeping on portable beds wedged into the cells.

"We will never be able to build ourselves out of this problem," Dean said. "So I want to be able to expand some of these alternative sentencing programs during the coming years."

While the larger jurisdictions in the state, including Baltimore County, have some alternative program to monitor those charged with misdemeanors or nonviolent crimes before trial or after conviction, no count is available on the numbers enrolled in them.

In Baltimore County, about 2,500 people participate in three programs for juveniles and adults -- with services that include job placement and substance-abuse monitoring, in addition to monitoring of their activities.

"Many of these people have families to support, and they need to keep their jobs," Dean said. "And they can't do that if they are sitting in jail."

Many in the alternative programs are skilled or educated and were holding steady jobs when they were arrested -- such as a 35-year-old man sentenced to 400 hours of community service and ordered to make restitution for stealing more than $100,000 from his employer.

"The punishment for me was less about being in jail than it was about not being able to support my family," he said, asking that his name be withheld out of concern for the business that he has since started and which he runs out of his home.

To fulfill a community service sentence, he said, requires personal motivation backed by support from the criminal justice system to get a life on track.

"I know some people who come out of jail without any skills or jobs, and on top of having to get a job and pay restitution, they have to do their community service," the man said. "Add that to having a drug problem, and they will turn around and do the same thing and end up back in jail."

Chief Judge Robert F. Sweeney of the Maryland District Court is a proponent of community service programs. He said he does not see them as the answer to reducing jail populations, but views them as an effective punishment.

"It is ideal to deal with those who would otherwise go unpunished," he said. "For almost all judges, jail is a last resort rather than a first. What I do is urge judges to take a look at the serious crimes, but not so serious that they would have to go to jail."

He cited, as an example, a shoplifter who might be given probation before judgment or ordered to pay restitution.

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