Needed prison reforms

January 12, 2007

Critics derisively dismissed the initiative as "hug a thug," but the Ehrlich administration's prison reform effort has been primarily about public safety. It offers inmates education and skills to resist the one steady job awaiting them on the outside - selling drugs. The reforms have tried to put a stick in the revolving door of recidivism, and they shouldn't be discarded because there's a new man in the State House.

Hiring a competent public safety secretary to manage the prisons should be only the first step. The corrections system has pressing staffing concerns at one of its most violent prisons, maintenance demands and prisoner needs. A pay raise for corrections officers helped the state reduce its vacancies to about 10 percent, but Jessup-area prisons can't fill 14 percent of their correctional jobs. And that leaves prison guards, especially those called upon to work double shifts, vulnerable. The rap on Central Maryland prisons is they are unduly violent.

The condition of Maryland's prisons contributes to that violence. Some prisons in Baltimore and Jessup are in such bad shape that repairing them would be self-defeating. The House of Correction is beyond repair. The prison system's capital projects for the coming years must remain on schedule, including designing a replacement for that 19th-century relic.

Reforms lead to improved safety. When prisoners have meaningful training or work to occupy their time, they are less likely to get into trouble inside the prison and less likely to reoffend once released. Intensive community supervision, another aspect of the reforms promoted by outgoing Public Safety Secretary Mary Ann Saar, has shown some results: Ex-offenders with this level of monitoring were less likely to reoffend and violate their probation than those without it, according to a University of Maryland-Virginia Commonwealth University study.

As mayor of Baltimore, Martin O'Malley promoted programs and retraining that helped reintegrate ex-offenders into their communities safely and responsibly. He got that part. But the state legislature restricted the Saar reform initiative to two prisons, and only 1,300 prisoners were served as a result. Mr. O'Malley now must convince state lawmakers that a piecemeal approach to prison reform won't sufficiently slow the revolving door of crime.

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