Reforming inmates saves more than money

February 15, 2007|By DAN RODRICKS

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to nearly double funding - up to $93.9 million - for "anti-recidivism" efforts in his state, including more drug treatment, counseling and housing assistance for inmates upon their release. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, understands that meeting the primary goal of a state corrections system - protecting the public - includes keeping the worst criminals behind bars and reducing the rate at which other inmates commit crimes once they return to society.

That second part is just as important as the first, but it has been neglected for decades. We took correction out of corrections years ago, and the results include a revolving door of criminality (particularly drug offenses), dangerous and overcrowded prisons, new prisons and the ever-rising costs of incarcerating hundreds of thousands of men and women, including the mentally ill and drug-addicted.

Schwarzenegger is not the only governor experiencing "anti-recidivism" enlightenment.

Last week, the new Colorado governor, Bill Ritter, a Democrat and former Denver district attorney, called for more funding to lower his state's nearly 50 percent recidivism rate (the number of inmates who return to prison within three years of their release). Ritter's office believes Colorado could save as much as $12.5 million annually by providing additional mental health, substance abuse, job placement, community corrections and transitional housing services. "Reducing the number of inmates who return to prison as repeat offenders not only saves money, it means fewer victims of crime and it keeps people safer," Ritter says in a statement on his Web site.

Until he got the boot in November, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Republican former governor of Maryland, was bullish on stemming the state's 51 percent recidivism rate. His public safety secretary, Mary Ann Saar, kept asking the legislature to help fund an initiative called Project RESTART (Re-entry Enforcement and Services Targeting Addiction, Rehabilitation and Treatment), which would have provided intensive counseling, education, drug treatment and job preparation for inmates the moment they enter the system.

What a concept - a Republican administration pushing something as progressive as rehabilitative services for criminals. How bold! How original!

Unfortunately, the Democratic General Assembly was not that eager to see this happen. Legislators wanted proof that RESTART would work before it was launched, and they refused to give Saar the funding she needed to get things rolling.

RESTART, therefore, was limited to only two facilities - the Maryland Correctional Training Center at Hagerstown and the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women at Jessup - and served probably fewer than 300 inmates.

It should be pointed out that the two Maryland correctional officers who were killed in the line of duty during this past year were assigned to neither of those places.

But it is often suggested that Ehrlich's and Saar's push for RESTART endangered lives of all correctional officers.

Gov. Martin O'Malley toured the training center in Hagerstown on Monday and pretty much said that. He said money was diverted from full staffing and safety measures to pay for rehabilitation and training programs for inmates - also not true.

"For starters, or should I say, for restarters, we need to get away from the zero-sum game where we shortchange safety to fund treatment," O'Malley said.

That's pretty much the correctional officers' union line on RESTART - that money that could have paid for adequate staffing went instead to Saar's touchy-feely pet project. Criticism of RESTART almost always has been twinned with complaints about prison staffing, low morale and the increasing dangers of being a correctional officer.

But when you consider how limited RESTART was, and that it was never really given a chance because of partisan politics, such statements are laughable.

The goal of the Maryland governor should not only be better-paid correctional officers and safer prisons, but also fewer of both - not immediately but within the next decade. Fewer prisons mean fewer inmates costing taxpayers upward of $25,000 per year and fewer repeat offenders breaking into our houses and stealing our cars. What a concept! How bold! How original!

O'Malley's first state budget includes funding for 155 more correctional officers and $32.6 million for new inmate housing at Hagerstown.

According to Jason Ziedenberg, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, an organization that has examined Maryland's criminal justice and correctional systems, we could be going in the opposite - or at least a very different - direction.

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