Out of prison

November 09, 2003

IN MARYLAND'S criminal justice system, the sad facts are these: African-Americans account for 68 percent of drug arrests and 90 percent of those imprisoned for drug crimes. What makes that finding from the Justice Policy Institute even more disturbing is this: African-Americans are only 28 percent of the state's population.

The reasons for the overrepresentation of blacks in the system range from poverty and unemployment to policing practices and lawyer affordability. In its report, the Justice Policy Institute doesn't deal with the causes of the disparity, but seeks to address the problem as it exists today. It recommends overhauling state sentencing policies to reduce mandatory prison terms, and diverting low-level drug offenders into treatment.

The proposals have merit because of their potential to reduce the cycle of drug-related crime and rehabilitate an addiction-driven criminal into a drug-free, employed member of society. The savings that would result from freed-up prison beds could then be dedicated to treatment services.

That's the path Washington state took recently. Its decision to reduce prison sentences for most drug offenses - except those involving violence and weapons - yielded about $50 million in savings. Lawmakers set aside $8.2 million for drug treatment in the community and the prison system. A prison bed in Washington costs $25,000 a year, compared with $8,000 in a top-of-the-line drug treatment program.

Following that example could enable officials here to increase treatment available through drug courts. In Baltimore, Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson estimates that he would need about $7 million a year over four years to provide "treatment on demand" for the city's 55,000 drug addicts. Right now, a third of the city's drug treatment slots are reserved for offenders coming through the drug courts.

The need is there: An estimated 80 percent of prison inmates nationally have a drug problem. Last week, Maryland's public safety chief, Mary Ann Saar, announced an ambitious three-year plan to revamp the treatment, education and job training offered to Maryland inmates. While she supports efforts to divert low-level, nonviolent drug offenders out of the prison system, Ms. Saar felt an urgency to move ahead with reforms that could be accomplished in-house and serve prisoners who are within a year of release.

Even in the midst of the state's dire fiscal crisis, Ms. Saar is creatively retooling staff positions to fit the correction system's changing focus. Drug treatment barely exists now in the prisons, and the waiting lists for academic and vocational training number 1,200 and 600, respectively.

Ms. Saar's commitment to rehabilitating Maryland inmates and proposals to divert drug-addicted criminals into treatment instead of prison have great potential for changing a system that for too long has refused to see the human and social cost of locking up drug-scarred, nonviolent offenders.

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