Alternative sentencing for nonviolent convicts earns high marks Positive impact reported on recidivism and costs

October 21, 1997|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Maryland's alternative-sentencing program has reduced the chance that an offender will commit a new crime by 50 percent and saved the state from having to construct a new prison, according to a report being presented to a General Assembly committee today.

The report by a nonprofit criminal justice organization in Washington on the state's Correctional Options Program, which has been touted as a national model by the U.S. Department of Justice, is viewed as a key evaluation of the state's community detention programs.

The options program has been in place for three years. Some of the program's projects, however, began as early as 1990.

Correctional options uses programs such as home detention, which requires offenders to wear electronic ankle bracelets, drug abuse treatment and military-style boot camps to rehabilitate convicts and return them to society.

The programs include intensive supervision to ensure that offenders stay off drugs and go to work instead of being kept in prison. It is designed for nonviolent offenders, making prison a place for those who pose a threat to public safety.

"The bottom line behind all these programs is, who do you want in prison?" said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. "Do you want the rapist? Do you want the armed robber? Or do you want the shoplifter?"

"The program was designed to save prison beds for violent offenders," Sipes said. "And the findings have been nothing short of outstanding."

Lawrence Sherman, chairman of the department of criminal justice at the University of Maryland, College Park, said the success of the program is "certainly good news." But Sherman, who had not seen the report, cautioned that the options program has not had a long enough history to make many definitive conclusions.

An average of 2,100 criminal offenders participate in the options program each year, according to the study, which was conducted by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

According to the report, about 4.3 percent of those in the options program committed new crimes during the first year after they were released from prison, compared with 8.7 percent of those who did not participate.

The program costs $4,100 for each inmate, compared with $18,000 per inmate in prison. Public safety officials say that without the options program, they would have had to construct a $50 million prison that would have required $12.8 million annually in operating costs.

But Maryland's incarceration rate has been soaring, and unless the options program is expanded or other steps are taken, a new prison might have to be constructed in the near future anyway.

The inmate population increased almost 70 percent from 1987 to 1995 and is now more than 20,000.

Bishop L. Robinson, the outgoing secretary of public safety, told the General Assembly last month that a new prison might be needed specifically to handle the state's violent offenders.

Sipes said about 20 percent of the roughly 11,000 new prisoners each year are violent offenders. To free prison space, Sipes said, many nonviolent offenders could be placed in alternative-sentencing programs.

Pub Date: 10/21/97

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