O'Malley should put the lid on new prisons

November 12, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Maryland voters have given Martin O'Malley an opportunity of a lifetime -- a chance to accomplish great things as the young governor of a progressive state next to the nation's capital -- and if he can pull a few of them off without the wild spending binge his sour right-wing critics have predicted, O'Malley might have the future in national politics he craves.

There's more that unites us than divides us, O'Malley likes to say. So he should take a nonpartisan, common-sense approach to a few things. Nobody asked me, but I have some suggestions. I'll start today with the area I've studied most during the past year.

Suggestion: Stop building prisons. It's time to pledge serious, sustained improvement of the juvenile justice system -- O'Malley can call it JuviStat -- and a major reduction in the adult recidivist population. O'Malley should announce a moratorium on prison construction and, with it, a progressive, nonpartisan, common-sense effort to put corrections back into corrections.

Parkinson's Law states that "work expands to fill the time available for its completion." The computer-age variation on that goes: "Data expands to fill the space available for storage." Rodricks' law states: "Prisoner population expands to fill the space available for them." Basically, if we build it, they will come.

Annual spending on state prisons alone increased nationally from $9 billion in 1982 to $60 billion by 2002, according to the Council of State Governments, and the expansion -- state, federal and local -- has continued since then. There's talk about building another federal prison in Maryland. We've had a costly war on drugs since the Reagan administration, and what do we have to show for it? We have the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world.

In the next four years, let Maryland raise as the ideal a dwindling crime-committing population and an expanding law-abiding populace. Imagine that! We can do this without jeopardizing public safety by expanding intervention programs for at-risk kids, reforming juvenile justice and doing something big and serious about drug addiction.

We don't need to raise taxes to make this happen. We just need to change our priorities and spend our money differently.

The state's funding for drug treatment has fallen off during the Ehrlich years, and, according to a recent Justice Policy Institute report, we now spend only 26 cents on drug addict treatment for every dollar spent on drug addict incarceration.

Here's what I say: Let's open a hospital for drug addicts. We are saddled with thousands of repeat offenders who keep committing crimes because they remain addicted to drugs. The men and women who commit robberies, engage in petty theft, who break into cars and houses, who stand on streets selling dope or their own bodies to maintain drug habits constitute a chronic and costly problem from city to suburb.

A small percentage of these adults get treatment for their addictions through the state's successful Drug Treatment Court system.

But there isn't enough state-funded treatment for the rest, so what happens?

They take up space in county detention centers or state prisons.

Once released, they frequently violate the conditions of parole or probation -- they fail urine tests or fail to find a treatment slot -- and judges send them back to jail.

It's a ridiculous and expensive cycle.

So, in the next two years, let's convert an old building -- there must be one at Spring Grove or Crownsville -- into a lock-down hospital for drug addicts. Judges need to have this sentencing option. Drug addicts need a place where they can get life-changing help instead of the mindless incarceration that just leads to relapse.

Here's another suggestion for O'Malley: Make Dr. Peter Beilenson the secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. As city health commissioner, Beilenson proved to be one of the most effective government officials in the United States, as Baltimore made significant progress in major indexes of public health during his tenure, including drug treatment.

Under Beilenson, the state needs another dynamic, imaginative official -- not another bureaucrat, please -- to coordinate the state's approach to the persistent problem of drug and alcohol abuse. This new state drug czar needs to understand the intricacies of the criminal justice system and the intricacies of addictions psychology, someone who can get the police, the courts and treatment professionals working toward the same goal.

O'Malley made his name as the zero-tolerance, crime-fighting, arrest-obsessed mayor of Baltimore (though I heard Ron Smith refer to him on WBAL radio Friday as a "loony left-wing liberal").

As governor, O'Malley needs to support law enforcement and beef up security in the prisons.

But he also needs to support reforms that would put more nonviolent drug offenders on a path of rehabilitation while incarcerated.

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