Ehrlich fails to follow through on ex-offenders

November 02, 2006|By C. Fraser Smith

The shortcomings of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration are crystallized in a program called RESTART.

I am guessing you don't know what RESTART is - and that's part of the problem. Had it been pushed for what it is - a bold new way for government to address a critical problem - no one would have to explain it.

It's such a good idea, you wonder how it got off the drawing board in an administration not noted for bold initiatives. But when you hear the history, you begin to understand.

The acronym stands for Re-entry Enforcement Services Targeting Addiction Rehabilitation and Treatment. As the governor has said, the idea was to "stop the warehousing and recycling of adult offenders, especially drug offenders." They would get training, education, treatment behind bars and careful attention to the problems of re-entering their communities.

Great, progressive idea. No follow-through. RESTART did not have sufficient financial support. It didn't have the backing of those who would have to make it work. Mr. Ehrlich's leadership was tepid.

So Maryland's prison system annually sends 8,000 ex-felons back to Baltimore largely unprepared for the difficult transition. Three or four thousand more former prisoners disperse across the rest of the state.

Maybe few of us care about the re-entry preparedness of ex-felons. We should care. They're a threat to our well-being - and to the state's resources. A large percentage of them are back in prison cells - at a cost of about $24,000 each year - in short order. Maryland has about 24,000 men and women in prison.

Like No Child Left Behind, RESTART was a great bumper sticker - without a bumper. Nothing to hang it on.

Democrats in the General Assembly, to be sure, were not taken with the idea. They thought it was underfunded. They thought it diverted prison guards from their more basic duties.

They and others thought the prisons were not sufficiently secure. Without security, there's no way to run a successful prison program of any kind. As matters stand, prison guards and their families are furious with Mr. Ehrlich.

Again, it's symptomatic of a government trying to get by without asking for the money it takes to operate efficiently.

Mr. Ehrlich operates with an aversion to governing beyond defending borders, providing public safety and other rock-bottom maintenance responsibilities.

We are told we don't have to pay our way. The whole concept of civic responsibility is undermined. It's a sore point, I know. But honesty in government calls for acknowledging some unpleasant realities: Prison guards are a costly necessity, for example, particularly when we are locking up so many people.

Mr. Ehrlich has tried to govern as if this were not so. He has given us "fees" as if they were not a charge for services provided by government, usually via taxes. He runs for re-election as a no-tax-increase governor. Do we need a prison guard fee to make prisons safe for guards and inmates?

The governor has tried to make us believe more gambling is the answer, and blamed Democrats for killing his proposal - even as many of his most loyal supporters in the General Assembly had to be dragged kicking and screaming to vote for his program.

He has shown admirable resolve in the matter of controlling the state budget. It might not have happened under the Democrats. But control is only one important objective. In a second term, perhaps, he would correct this deficiency, but he offers no assurances. Now that we're out of the fiscal woods, we will ... what?

He may have a prison system crisis on his hands. Knowledgeable insiders say it's in turmoil. Guards work so many shifts and so much overtime that some have stopped answering their telephones, lest they be summoned back to the job. The governor recently added 165 guards, a belated acknowledgment of the need.

There are credible reports of one prison - Jessup - where guards have become so disillusioned, they make little effort to control gangs and drug trafficking.

Prisons, inmates and guards don't command a high spot on the list of spending priorities, but when cutting and holding the line is the only priority, opportunities are missed. It's one reason some people think Maryland ought to have a restart in the governor's office.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column usually appears Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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