Inmate treatment plan criticized

Legislators say proposal from Ehrlich to assist drug addicts not ready

General Assembly

March 17, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s ambitious proposal to provide drug treatment, counseling and education so prison inmates can start productive lives in their communities is not ready for statewide rollout, key General Assembly members said yesterday.

Ranking members of House and Senate budget committees say they will not provide the full funding Ehrlich wants for a Division of Correction addictions and rehabilitation program, delivering a significant blow to one to the governor's top initiatives of the year.

"The committee felt it wasn't quite ready," said Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., an Anne Arundel County Democrat and chairman of a budget subcommittee that oversees corrections issues. "We feel it needs to go slower and go into a pilot program."

State corrections chief Mary Ann Saar, the architect of the new approach, supplied insufficient evidence to show how state prisons could set aside space to keep targeted inmates away from drugs, or could create an environment where the program could flourish, lawmakers said.

"Many of these people can't get clean because they are still getting drugs inside prisons," DeGrange said. "Not that we don't think the program is good, but we want to make sure the program is in the right shape. There wasn't enough information provided to us."

Del. Joan Cadden, DeGrange's counterpart on the House Appropriations Committee, concurred that the corrections department could not demonstrate a good chance of success.

"There's been some problem getting a full plan delineated from them," the Anne Arundel County Democrat said.

As a result, the Senate budget plan scheduled to be approved this week is expected to cut $2 million from the corrections department budget that would have been spent on the project Re-entry Enforcement Services Targeting Addiction Rehabilitation and Treatment, or RESTART.

Administration officials say they still back the initiative despite concerns, and will work to get the money restored.

"It should be as uncontroversial as it gets," said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich. "The governor is deeply committed to getting this worthwhile program up and running with the necessary funding and staffing, because the track record over the last 20 years with regard to recidivism is pretty poor. We need a new start, and this is it."

The budget committees' impending decisions reflect continued difficulties by a Republican governor in getting programs through a Democrat-controlled legislature, especially in lean fiscal times.

Ehrlich has seen some success this year -- his second legislative session -- in moving a sewer surcharge through committees and blocking attempts to curb his budget powers. But other efforts have fallen short, such as an initiative to protect witnesses in criminal cases, which was killed by a House committee this month.

The governor had proposed more than 100 staffers for RESTART, creating those positions by using vacant correctional-officer jobs. The Senate budget committee has voted to eliminate 75 of those positions, and said the governor could fill 25 slots for a pilot program that would operate in Baltimore.

The House plan awaiting a final committee vote this week is shaping up as slightly more generous. A subcommittee has voted to give the program 50 positions, and two test locations that would not be restricted to Baltimore.

Corrections officials said yesterday that a pilot program would be insufficient.

"The department's stance is that RESTART is a new corrections philosophy," said Jacqueline Lampell, a spokeswoman. "It is not a program. The way the cuts are coming down, is going to make it very difficult for us to enact this throughout the department."

Reversing years of a lock-them-up approach to corrections, Ehrlich and Saar unveiled the corrections approach this year, saying that returning drug-addicted inmates to their neighborhoods exacerbated community problems.

Officials hope that RESTART can become a national model for recidivism prevention, according to department documents.

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