Gansler's ideas on recidivism good, timing not so

Attorney general addresses inmate issue few other Democrats have talked about

August 07, 2013|Dan Rodricks

Timing is everything — in love, comedy, trapeze acts, pastry and politics. Of course, to be successful in any of those ventures, you need keen senses, a super awareness of things, even prescience. But no matter how big your brain, your timing is critical. On this count, a couple of candidates for Maryland governor need work.

Anthony Brown, the lieutenant governor, is so eager for a promotion, he declared his candidacy way before anyone cared. The early jump helps him lock up campaign contributions, but he risks peaking too soon. By the time of the Democratic primary (June 24, 2014) and the general election (Nov. 4, 2014), voters might grow tired of him and look for a new face.

But what really got me thinking about Brown's questionable sense of timing was his appearance in Baltimore on July 1 to receive the endorsement of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. The city was in the midst of an early-summer nightmare: 36 people shot, 16 killed in the last week of June. Seven more were shot during the last weekend of the month, and there was a triple shooting on the very day of the endorsement.

The last thing anyone in Baltimore cared about was the mayor's preference for a 2014 gubernatorial candidate.

And neither Brown nor Rawlings-Blake had the smarts to delay the pony show in the midst of a bloody crisis — if not to avoid the appearance of tone-deaf politics, then at least to make sure the endorsement wasn't overshadowed by another Baltimore news story.

Doug Gansler has a big brain. But his timing isn't so hot, either.

The savvy attorney general, who also has gubernatorial aspirations, came out this week with a thoughtful plan for reducing recidivism — that is, the rate at which offenders, once released from Maryland prisons, commit another crime and are incarcerated again.

It's a costly societal problem rarely addressed. It takes courage for a politician to lead on it. Most don't; they figure the public doesn't care, so why should they? So props to Gansler.

But he had two problems: Only one point of his 10-point plan got any attention (the one about giving inmates tablet computers). He also released it in the midst of a corrections crisis: an alleged gang takeover of the state-run Baltimore City Detention Center, reports of frequent violence in prisons, 15 correctional officers reportedly assaulted since July at the North Branch Correctional Institution, and three inmates killed inside that western Maryland prison in the past year.

So, bad timing: The last thing anyone wants to hear about is inmates getting out of prison, much less the state helping them prepare for it with iPads.

Still, as ill-timed as Gansler's "Building Our Best Maryland" white paper might be, he's one of the few politicians who has addressed this issue.

The present governor is so far away from caring about reentry of offenders, it's tragic.

Martin O'Malley's Republican predecessor, Bob Ehrlich, cared about it, and his corrections secretary, Mary Ann Saar, had a plan for addressing recidivism. "This is not a liberal issue," Saar said in 2005. "This is not a conservative issue. This is not a Republican issue. It is not a Democratic issue. This is a common-sense issue that will serve all of us."

Of course, being a Republican in a State House dominated by Democrats, Ehrlich's plan went nowhere.

Since then, the supposedly progressive Democrats have done little to nothing on the matter, and O'Malley has been more concerned with carrying a tough-on-crime image into a run for the presidency than with putting corrections back into the correctional system.

The main purposes of prison: punishing criminals and keeping the public safe from them. There are two parts to that: incarceration and corrections.

The vast majority of men and women sent to our prisons eventually get out. If you incarcerate with no effort to correct, behaviors never change and public safety is not served.

Without a plan for reentry, more than four out of 10 ex-offenders fail; they commit more crimes or violate the conditions of their parole, or both, within three years of their release.

When I started writing about this issue eight years ago, the state's recidivism rate was about 50 percent, lower than several states but still high if you consider cost-effectiveness. At the time, it cost Maryland taxpayers between $24,000 and $26,000 a year per inmate. Now the recidivism rate is still close to 50 percent, and I've seen the revised cost per inmate estimated as high as $38,000 a year.

Factor in what high rearrest rates cost us in property, insurance, law enforcement and courts — and what additional incarceration costs families of ex-offenders in lost wages and stability.

So Gansler's right. Putting corrections back into corrections is long overdue; inmates should complete their education, train for a job and get help with reentry. And if they are going to function in the digital world, that might even mean letting some short-timers earn the right to use tablets or computers.

But first things first. Make the prisons secure again, then we'll talk.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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