State to shift prison policy toward rehab

Ehrlich administration plans inmate programs

`This is the way to go,' Saar says

Cost would be financed by juggling of payroll

November 06, 2003|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

In a recognition that get-tough prison policies have failed to prevent repeat offenders, the Ehrlich administration announced yesterday a shift toward rehabilitation, proposing programs to educate inmates and improve their behavior.

But with the state facing a revenue shortfall, all but $2 million of the annual cost would be financed by juggling the correctional payroll over the next three years - filling an expected 218 correctional officer vacancies with 210 teachers, counselors and social workers, a tactic that also would avoid layoffs.

"To my mind, if we don't go in this direction then we are just wasting our money in cycling these [inmates] through," state correctional Secretary Mary Ann Saar said. "My wardens are all saying this is the way to go."

About half of Maryland's freed prisoners end up back behind bars within three years, a problem magnified by the rapid growth in inmate populations. Last year, the state released about 15,000 inmates, almost double the number from 1990, and the state's prison population is about 28,000.

By the end of the program's three-year phase-in, Saar said, the state would be offering an additional 4,600 openings each year in inmate programs for education, job training and substance abuse treatment. But the program's most innovative aspect would be 5,220 openings each year in a new behavior modification program, a 12-week course focused on teaching prisoners to deal with conflict and real-life problems - the very sorts of situations in which they might commit another crime.

"You teach them to stop and think," Saar said. "Will they all do it? No. Will a lot of them do it? Yes."

Such programs have a proven track record of success, said Paul Gendreau, a research professor at the University of New Brunswick in Canada.

"Any investment in [retraining] programs are good investments," Gendreau said. "But the better ones focus on behavior modification."

A study he co-authored this year, looking mostly at U.S. prison populations, found that behavior modification programs reduced the rate of repeat offenders by 15 percentage points. They also reduced cases of prison misconduct by a fourth, the study said.

The proposal continues a shift away from the get-tough philosophy that dominated correctional programs a decade ago and bucks a national trend in which many states are cutting rehabilitation programs for budgetary reasons.

Saar signaled the shift last month when she said she wants the state to tear down the $21 million - and not yet 15-year-old - Supermax prison in Baltimore, which keeps inmates confined to cells 23 hours a day but is short on space for training and education.

Prison reform advocates welcomed that idea and lauded yesterday's announcement.

"We think it's excellent the secretary is making moves back toward rehabilitation instead of lock 'em up and throw away the key," said Tara Andrews, director of the Maryland Justice Coalition, a nonprofit prison reform organization, although she added that the state could do its prisons an even bigger favor by not locking up so many of its drug offenders to begin with.

Frank C. Sizer Jr., a former warden who is now the state's acting correctional commissioner, said, "The lock 'em up mode does nothing for a released person."

In the days before the get-tough era, rehabilitation was in vogue. It also was deemed a failure by its detractors.

"I think what happens is you don't really embed these things into your system, and I think that's why they fail," Saar said. "People don't follow through on a good idea. Politics change. Budgets change."

Saar briefed a few lawmakers this week on the plan, and the early reaction was favorable.

"It's a program that makes a lot of sense," said state Sen. Ulysses Currie, chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "It's a long-term way to help us deal with the problem."

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