Corrections policy needs to target recidivism

November 21, 2005|By DAN RODRICKS

Back when Mary Ann Saar was a prosecutor in Baltimore, she was regarded as tough and conservative, a label that took on special luster after that memorable day in 1979 when she drew a handgun and took a shot at a would-be robber in downtown Baltimore. A few years later, when Saar became the state's reform-minded juvenile justice secretary, her old fans blasted her as a delinquent-hugging liberal.

Saar has worked for a Democratic governor, and now a Republican one.

She's Maryland's secretary for public safety and correctional services. If our next governor has any brains, he'll keep her in place after the 2006 election - and give her the funds she needs to thoroughly change the culture of corrections here.

I don't know Saar's party affiliation, and I don't care. Liberal, conservative - the importance of the problem trumps all ideology.

"On this," Saar told a conference on ex-offender re-entry at the University of Maryland School of Law on Friday, "I would like the label of `practical.'"

Practical means this: We can't arrest our way into a safer society, and out of drug addiction and urban homicides, without reducing the rate of recidivism among the nation's swelling population of criminal offenders.

"We have to ask ourselves: What condition do we want these people in when they return to society?" Saar told the conference in historic Westminster Hall.

You want safer streets? You want to stop worrying about someone breaking into your car or house?

Want to see more families made whole, and more children cared for by their birth parents? Want to see Baltimore - a next-big-thing city, according to the Brookings Institution - soar into the next decade, and not just limp there, with one leg shackled in heroin addiction and violence?

Then, in the next 10 years, we make it a goal to break the cycle of crime-incarceration-unemployment-crime for the thousands of men and women presently caught in it.

We turn the corrections system inside out, upside down. We do what Saar wants, and what other states already have started to do - rehabilitate criminals while they're inside; train them in life skills, prepare them for the working world. And you get the captains at the helm of the state's economy to include them in the work force instead of barring them from even entry-level jobs.

Some figures: About 650,000 men and women - something close to the population of Baltimore - are released from prisons in the United States every year, according to the most recent Justice Department records. In Maryland, the number varies from 13,000 to 15,000 annually, and more than half of those return to Baltimore. Of all inmates released - here and across the country - more than half commit new crimes, or violate the conditions of their release, and end up back in a taxpayer-funded prison within three years.

It costs about $24,000 a year to keep an inmate in a Maryland prison. As of Nov. 14, we had 22,446 of them. Add those at Patuxent Institution and those awaiting trial in Baltimore's jails, and the number approaches 27,000. (At this writing, I do not have a total number for all the county jails in Maryland.)

A high percentage of Maryland's inmates committed drug-related crimes. That's true across the country. According to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, in 2002, the most recent year with publicly available data, there were almost 330,000 men and women incarcerated for drug offenses and an estimated 135,000 for other crimes attributable to drug abuse.

Recidivism is an acute problem among drug offenders. Users relapse when they get out of jail; they go back to committing crimes to feed their habits. Drug dealers, even the ones who come out of prison with ambition to land legitimate work, find themselves drifting back to the dope corners when they get frustrated in the job hunt.

So Saar wants to prepare inmates for a more successful return. And that means having a plan for inmates the moment they enter the system. That means case workers who assess the inmates' health and personal histories, their drug treatment, educational and job training needs. As inmates approach release, it means addressing their housing needs and family situation.

One of the great benefits of successful re-entry, Saar said, is the reintegration of inmates with their families, particularly their children.

"Education works," Saar said in the firm voice of authority and experience. "Treatment works. Job training works."

Saar wanted to bring this agenda to all 30 of the Department of Correction's facilities by now.

She's managed that only in a couple, and there only on a limited basis.

"Politics came into play," Saar said of her futile efforts to get more funding from the General Assembly for these initiatives.

What she didn't say was we have too many politicians with their heads in the sand, or who think the public will scream for blood if we actually put corrections back into corrections, and hire more social workers and treatment counselors instead of prison guards.

They're wrong. This is about reducing the likelihood that an offender repeats a crime. This is about the public safety. This is about the future. Anyone should be able to see the practical need for serious reform here - no matter what their ideology or party affiliation.

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