Reforming prison policy could solve other ills

April 20, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Here's an area of public policy where progressive thinking and common sense could actually mate and produce lovely offspring, and a crusading politician with some guts could make a name for himself with the effort. For a variety of social and economic reasons, it's long overdue, and both Democrats and Republicans know it. They just won't say it.

They know that smart and sustained reforms in prison policy are not only necessary but even possible. By putting corrections back into corrections, we could achieve historic gains in human achievement, lower crime and poverty rates, enlarge the available workforce, improve the business climate, strengthen families and make Maryland not only one of the wealthiest states in the nation but one of the most admired.

We could one day declare a moratorium on costly prison construction and maintenance.

Baltimore could shake its heroin-and-homicide reputation. More men would get off the streets, go to work and support their families, and more children might know their fathers. More neighborhoods in Baltimore would finally recover from the chronic crime and unemployment that has left them out of the urban renaissance.

One day, suburban homeowners could stop worrying about drug addicts breaking into their houses or cars. The children and grandchildren of today's suburbanites might find living and working - even raising a family - in Baltimore appealing.

More businesses might be willing to move into Maryland if they knew we were engaged in a long-term effort to break the cycle of crime that has gone on, generation after generation, fueled by drug addiction and sustained by a 50 percent rate of recidivism.

Our system is broken.

At any given time, Maryland has up to 22,000 inmates in its sprawling prison system. (There are several thousand more men and women in county detention centers and the city jail.) It costs state taxpayers $24,000 per inmate per year. Every year, the state releases between 10,000 and 15,000 inmates, and about two-thirds return to live in Baltimore ZIP codes. Within three years, half of them commit new crimes - in the city and elsewhere - and return to our prisons.

Any corporate executive would look at such results and declare them disastrous.

Not in Maryland. Not in most of the United States. Politicians avoid this problem because it means coming up with a plan to fix it, and they think - mistakenly - that the public isn't interested. They stay away because they think corrections reform - moving from mindlessly warehousing criminals to trying to rehabilitate them and prepare them for re-entry to free society - will mark them as soft on crime.

They are wrong.

The huge volume of mail and phone calls I have received in the past year - from city residents and suburban Marylanders alike - indicates broad appreciation for a common-sense approach to corrections reform. It's simple: Keep the public safe and the violent criminals behind bars, but for the nonviolent class of offenders - primarily those caught up in drug addiction and/or drug dealing - it's time to put corrections back into corrections, treat addiction as a disease, not a crime, and prepare inmates for more successful returns to free society.

Except for recent initiatives taken by the Republican governor of Maryland, there's little to report in the way of public leadership in this area.

In fact, the majority party in this allegedly liberal, blue state has obstructed offender re-entry efforts.

Three years ago, the Ehrlich administration created a program called RESTART (Re-entry Enforcement and Services Targeting Addiction, Rehabilitation and Treatment), which provides intensive counseling, education, drug treatment and job preparation for inmates from the moment they enter the system. The program should be in every prison, but it has been limited to only two, and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly refused to expand the program last year. This year, the legislature approved more money for RESTART, but, according to public safety Secretary Mary Ann Saar, it structured the funding in a way that again limits the program's reach.

One of the biggest challenges facing ex-offenders is finding a job; their criminal records frequently make them ineligible for employment. The General Assembly hasn't done much about this, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a political leader who even acknowledges the problem and its ramifications for the rest of us. In fact, a House of Delegates committee killed legislation that would have automatically expunged the records of thousands of people arrested but never charged. They can't even give nonoffenders a break.

While the legislature backed a tax-incentive program to encourage businesses to hire ex-offenders, the program is approved only as a pilot. We are not talking about the big, roll-out style of initiative that is needed to make a serious dent in the state's 50 percent failure rate in corrections.

There was another bill to allow the state to develop construction training for inmates. "Studies show that persons who learn a trade while incarcerated have a significantly better chance of becoming employed once they return to the community," says Jason Perkins-Cohen, executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force in Baltimore. "The bill failed in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and never made it to the floor."

Perkins-Cohen and many others believe that partisan politics killed or limited all attempts at progressive, common-sense reforms. No surprise there.

But all is not lost. It's an election year. Marylanders have a choice: Either we demand that politicians - so-called compassionate-conservative Republicans or faux-liberal Democrats - get serious about fixing this broken system or we continue to live with 50 percent failure and build more prisons. We can't keep ignoring this costly problem. That's exactly what the politicians want.

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