Maryland program seeking to educate, rehabilitate prisoners

Goal is to help inmates, save tax dollars, cut crime

November 20, 2003|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Educating and rehabilitating prisoners instead of merely punishing them will save the state money and spare society some of the crimes that result when ex-offenders are not prepared for release, Maryland's correctional chief said at a forum yesterday.

Mary Ann Saar, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, outlined plans to give inmates the skills they need to lead productive, law-abiding lives in the outside world.

Other forum participants called for changing state laws concerning child support and driver's licenses that result in many inmates leaving prison saddled with debt and unable to obtain licenses.

Saar's remarks were made a few weeks after the Ehrlich administration announced a shift away from the tougher, lock-'em-up approach that corrections has taken for the past decade.

The public safety and correctional services department plans to expand education, job training and substance abuse treatment in prisons, and introduce a behavior-modification program, Saar told a group of more than 300 people at Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake in downtown Baltimore.

The state hopes to fill more than 200 correctional officer vacancies with teachers, counselors and social workers. Also, inmates would be offered a 12-week behavior modification course intended to teach them how to handle personal conflicts and other problems that could lead to crime.

The moves will save "lives and families and tax dollars," Saar said.

The plans found a receptive audience at the gathering, which also drew state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden of Baltimore, city Circuit Judge Thomas Waxter and Abell Foundation President Robert C. Embry Jr.

Some expressed surprise that help was being offered to a group as unpopular as inmates.

"Not too long ago, this would not have happened in the state of Maryland," McFadden said.

Ex-offenders who have the education and training to earn a living, and the personal skills to avoid violent confrontations, are less likely to commit new crimes and return to prison, she said.

About half of all inmates freed in Maryland are locked up again within three years of their release, correctional officials said. The state freed about 15,000 prisoners last year and has about 28,000 behind bars. It costs Maryland taxpayers $23,000 a year to incarcerate one person.

"Just locking somebody up and keeping them confined and not giving them an opportunity to better themselves is counterproductive," McFadden said.

McFadden and other participants called for changing state laws that they said make it harder for former inmates to build new lives.

Offenders required to pay court-ordered child support are not relieved of that obligation when they're behind bars, so many leave prison deeply in debt, McFadden said. Their chances of getting jobs to pay off debt are reduced because state law prohibits people who owe child support from obtaining driver's licenses.

McFadden also suggested offering tax breaks to companies that hire ex-offenders.

Embry, who mentors eight ex-offenders, said it was "stupid" to lock up prisoners without trying to rehabilitate them, "because it doesn't work."

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