Safety chief Saar to retire

Md. official begins likely exodus of Ehrlich appointees

November 23, 2006|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN REPORTER

Maryland Public Safety Secretary Mary Ann Saar announced yesterday that she is retiring, making her the first in what is expected to be a stream of high-level state officials who step down as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s term in office winds to a close.

"She is retiring effective Jan. 17," said Jacqui Lampell, a spokeswoman for the agency. "She had made up her mind to go and had been talking about retiring for quite some time."

Saar, 65, has worked for Democrats, Republicans and independents. Most of her 38-year career in public service has been in criminal justice in Maryland.

She spent a rocky four years as secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services in the Ehrlich administration. Two correctional officers were killed by inmates while on duty this year, the first such deaths since 1984. Many correctional officers complained of Saar's policies and said cutbacks she ordered left the prison system understaffed and unsafe.

But Saar attributed the violence inside prisons to an increasingly violent gang culture on the outside. She said the key to solving the problem was to spend more on inmate rehabilitation programs, but she did not persuade the General Assembly to do that on a systemwide basis.

"We may not have agreed on everything, but within DPSCS our staff stood for integrity and enhancing public safety - on that we could agree," Saar said in a brief statement yesterday. "I'm proud to take that knowledge with me as I retire."

State Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., who chairs a subcommittee on public safety issues, said Saar's announcement that she plans to retire was to be expected as Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley prepares to take office in January.

The Anne Arundel County Democrat has been critical of Saar's leadership of the agency, saying that while he supports inmate rehabilitation programs, the top priority has to be making prisons safe for the people who work inside them.

"There's no program that's going to work unless you've got a safe work environment," DeGrange said.

He said Saar lost the support of rank-and-file correctional officers by failing to listen and respond to their concerns. "I think they needed a change of leadership to bring back confidence and stability for the people who are working in the trenches," DeGrange said.

Saar had a reputation for promoting what many would consider progressive prison reforms. She counts among her accomplishments the establishment of a treatment services division to ensure that appropriate medical and mental health services are provided to inmates.

She also created a professional development and training division for public safety staff and successfully pushed for pay raises for correctional officers.

A native of Estonia, Saar has a background in corrections that dates to the 1960s, when she worked as a probation officer to pay her way through the University of Maryland School of Law.

She was former Gov. William Donald Schaefer's juvenile services secretary from 1991 to 1995 and an associate commissioner of juvenile services under former Maine Gov. Angus King, an independent.

She was working for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, when Ehrlich, a Republican, tapped her for the job heading the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

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