Redirect prison resources

September 24, 2006

Marylanders are wasting a lot of money on prisons and prisoners. That's the conclusion state officials and taxpayers can draw from recent reports detailing some of the costs of prison violence and the lack of adequate drug treatment. One answer is to redirect some of the spending, with the potential benefit of reduced costs in the long run.

Last week, The Sun reported that the cost of violence in Maryland prisons and jails is spiraling toward $1 million this year, reflecting injuries in at least 257 inmate assaults that were severe enough to require hospital treatment. This year's increased violence has resulted in the deaths of two correctional officers and three inmates and has coincided with staffing reductions and cuts in overtime. State officials and lawmakers need to beef up prison staff levels, and they also need to keep prisoners busy with programs and activities that will enhance their educational and employment skills.

Beyond that, the Justice Policy Institute, which advocates for alternatives to prison, found that Maryland continues to send too many nonviolent drug offenders to prison instead of treatment. The group rightly recommends revising mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines to make it easier to treat relatively low-level drug dealers for their addiction rather than making them part of the prison culture. It also wants the state to spend an additional $30 million on substance abuse programs, starting in July.

In addition to investing in more treatment and job skills, the state would be wise to expand programs in behavior modification. And more state resources could also help prosecutors determine how much prison violence is the result of larger criminal enterprises and not just individual incidents.

Given the costs of prison violence, shifting the emphasis to programs and treatment is a smart way to save money and lives.

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