Breaking the cycle

March 24, 2003|By SUN STAFF

THE CORRECTIONS system in Maryland cycles men and women from arrest to conviction to prison and spits them out with few coping skills and predictable results.

Of the 24,400 men and women confined to Maryland prisons, more than a third are released every year. More than half of ex-offenders go back within three years. According to a new study, 72 percent of those released in 2001 had been in prison at least once before.

That Urban Institute study offers a profile of failure: Maryland has ignored corrections or acted as if it were helpless to deal with an ever-rising tide of inmates and ex-offenders. But fortunately, this policy of not-so-benign neglect may be changing.

Fairly simple approaches that can work - drug treatment and education - have scarcely been tried in Maryland. Prisoners get almost no training and no preparation for their return to society. Some promising re-entry programs have started in Baltimore recently, but they fall far short: Only a few hundred of the thousands of prisoners who come back to the city every year get help.

This study of prisoner re-entry in Maryland finds that the number of imprisoned drug offenders rises not because they commit more crimes, but because many violate the provisions of their release and are returned to prison. If they're drug-dependent, of course, their violations of parole are probably inevitable. But should they go back to prison? Many do, and as a result the system needs as many as 2,500 more beds.

Another recent study, this one by the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, says Maryland imprisons people for whom drug treatment or diversion programs are better alternatives. The authors suggest a careful evaluation of prisoners and prompt release of many for treatment.

Mary Ann Saar, the state's new corrections secretary, plans to act on studies that show education behind bars makes successful re-entry more likely.

A three-state, U.S. Department of Education survey of 3,600 prisoners able to attend school in prison found that education reduced the reincarceration rate by 29 percent. The states: Ohio, Minnesota - and Maryland.

Right now, prisoners often complete their sentences before a spot opens in limited education programs. All the more reason for efforts to continue on the outside.

Ms. Saar says she will try to advance on two fronts: create more programs inside and more supervision outside. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. backs this two-front approach, she says. He has authorized her to begin filling 185 vacant positions in parole and probation ranks, lifting a hiring freeze to allow these reinforcements.

A progressive approach, such as they propose, could save money and build a corrections system that enhances public safety while giving ex-offenders a better chance of breaking the recidivism cycle.

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