Thursday, December 11, 2003

Five hundred parolees have been selected to participate in Maryland’s experimental plan to pay them not to commit crimes, a state official says.

“That number will probably change and be lowered because of two reasons,” said Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional System. “First, not everyone will stick to the plan and, second, we still don’t have the money yet.”

The funding for the plan, which would pay nonviolent parolees and probationers $10 to $25 each month to stay law-abiding, is to come from a $50,000 grant from the Abell Foundation in Baltimore. The pay will be provided as vouchers that will be deposited each month in individual checking accounts set up by the state, which has not yet designated a bank.

The list of parolees indicates that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, is ready to present the plan to the Abell Foundation and implement it.

“As soon as they approve it, we can get started,” Mr. Vernarelli said. “That doesn’t mean it will be in 24 hours, but it would be soon after that.”

If all 500 parolees were to receive just $10 a month for a year, the program would cost $60,000. The Abell Foundation is to provide only $50,000, and Maryland officials have said that no taxpayer money will be used in the program.

Mr. Vernarelli noted that the foundation will not provide enough money for all the parolees, but said a failure rate has been factored into the plan.

“There is the built-in notion that some of the people are going to fail,” he said. “In the field of corrections, it is always inevitable that some people are going to fail.”

He said officials sifted through about 3,800 case files to produce a list of 500 parolees. Those guilty of trafficking drugs, domestic violence, murder and rape will not be eligible for the plan, but substance abusers will, he said.

“This has been a laborious process,” Mr. Vernarelli said. “They have worked intensely for many weeks, even in the planning stages for many months. This not something entered into capriciously at all.”

He said that while the program is being conducted, the cases “are going to be thoroughly reviewed, because this is a pilot program.”

“We certainly hope it works,” he said. “And if it doesn’t work, we will continue to work harder to come up with more methods that will reduce recidivism.”

Program participants will have to meet requirements such as having sought verifiable employment at least 10 times, receiving a high school diploma or equivalent, obtaining a commercial driver’s license and being drug-free.

The plan has not been well received by lawmakers.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers generally have expressed support for Mr. Ehrlich’s plan to focus on rehabilitating criminals to reduce the state’s more than 51 percent recidivism rate, but many oppose paying parolees to obey the law.

The administration faces a $786 million budget deficit and has been cutting agency funds, laying off state workers and eliminating unfilled positions to balance the budget. The state spends more than $20,000 annually for each of its 30,000 prisoners, but about $1,000 a year to supervise a parolee.

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