Drugs and prisons

September 13, 2004

LAST SPRING, the Maryland General Assembly passed Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan to expand drug treatment services to prison inmates. It was a modest victory for the Ehrlich administration but a potentially important step for communities such as Baltimore. The RESTART program (for Re-entry Enforcement Services Targeting Addiction Rehabilitation and Treatment) is intended to identify inmate addicts and make treatment available to them before and after their release. It's likely to reduce recidivism, which would be a welcome relief to crime-plagued communities.

It's bad enough that the legislature whittled the drug treatment project down to just two sites (prisons in Jessup and Hagerstown) when it approved the initiative, but lawmakers have made matters worse. They've locked up the program's modest financing, making it impossible for the project even to get started.

Why?

Legislators have some legitimate questions about RESTART. For instance, the state's Division of Correction needs to come up with better methods to track participants and find out how effective these services are. But none of the legislature's criticisms rises to a level that justifies holding up the program altogether.

So what's going on?

It appears the chief problem is that Democrats don't like how the administration is paying for the program. Most of the money is coming from about 50 correctional officer positions that were eliminated from prisons across the state. Those salaries are going to be recycled to pay for drug treatment. The union representing correctional officers is upset about this arrangement - and union officials claim prison safety has been compromised. The fact that the Ehrlich administration won't even let senior officials talk to them about it doesn't help matters.

Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Mary Ann Saar says safety hasn't been a problem, and she can point to statistics that back her up. RESTART, in any case, shouldn't be held hostage. The administration doesn't need the legislature's OK to reduce its prison staffing in any event. All that's been accomplished by holding up drug treatment funds is to ensure that more inmates return to lives of drug abuse and crime after their release. That's bad news for the rest of us.

Lawmakers are right to keep Secretary Saar's feet to the fire, and no one's advocating that they abandon their responsibility for oversight. But the governor deserves credit for advocating for prisoner rehabilitation. (Note to Democrats: This isn't usually a popular position among Republicans.) Meanwhile, Mr. Ehrlich isn't well served by stiff-arming the unions. Correctional officers might have valid concerns, and Ms. Saar should be permitted to hear from their representatives.

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