- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2003

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is revamping the Maryland correctional system to focus on rehabilitating criminals instead of giving them long-term prison sentences.

“It is my vision,” Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, told The Washington Times. “It is a vision I have always had and advocated.”

The major part of Mr. Ehrlich’s plan is allocating $2 million to hire 210 staffers to rehabilitate prisoners before their release.

“It is giving people who are coming back to the community a choice not to re-offend.” he said. “Basically, they [will] have a choice now.”

About 25 states in the past year have replaced mandatory sentencing with treatment, rehabilitation or early-release programs.

The shift away from “get tough” sentencing has been led mostly by Republican lawmakers who are faced with a state budget crisis and are unwilling to increase taxes to build more prisons.

Kansas legislators, for example, needed to build $15 million worth of prisons but instead passed a law that sends some nonviolent drug offenders to treatment instead of jail.

John Vratil, a Republican and chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, said the change could reduce Kansas’ prison population by about 15 percent.

Maryland faces a shortfall of more than $700 million.

Alabama, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin and Washington also have passed similar legislation for first-time or nonviolent criminals.

However, Mr. Ehrlich said he conceived the plan long before the recent trend, when he was serving in Congress several years ago.

“It is coming down from me because I think that it is the right thing to do,” he said. “I know that a lot of different governors have been associated with it, but this is something that my administration has supported since day one.”

Mr. Ehrlich pledged a “significant increase” in the amount of money spent on drug treatment during his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, according to the Associated Press.

He also said Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, had failed to provide adequate drug treatment to prison inmates and juvenile offenders and, as a result, recidivism was “guaranteed.”

Mary Ann Saar, Maryland’s secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said an audit of the state’s correctional system found more than 218 extra employees. She said during the next three years, those employees would be used to staff new facilities or be phased out through attrition.

Mrs. Saar also said the savings from eliminating those employees and the $2 million pledged by Mr. Ehrlich will pay for 210 teachers, case managers, social workers, substance-abuse counselors and transition coordinators. She expects the changes will reduce the state’s 51 percent recidivism rate, which exceeds the national average.

She said the new system also will give everybody access to information about “their risks and their needs.”

“Once [the inmates] are ready to come out we will have a release plan for them,” Mrs. Saar said. “In other words, if you have been getting substance-abuse treatment we don’t want to drop you off the cliff. We want to make sure you are able to continue getting treatment, if you need it.”

Mary D’Ambrogi, director of prison outreach for the Archdioceses of Baltimore, lauded the plan.

“We are being very wise stewards if we realize that we need to help people who are coming home from prison,” she said. “It shows that there are people in the administration who realize that these people need help and are wise enough to do something about it.”

Nancy Moran, an independent prisoner advocate, also agreed.

“It is a very positive change and it should have been done years ago,” she said.

The plan seems to have bipartisan acceptance and the support of at least one crime victim.

“I applaud the secretary for taking a look at recidivism and trying to remedy the problem with a solution,” said state Sen. Ulysses Currie, Prince George’s County Democrat and chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. “I know what we are doing now is not working.”

Portia J. Cox of Prince George’s County victims services said she supported the plan as long as offenders are not released early.

Pat K. Johnson, a Forestville resident whose son, Marc, was killed by a repeat offender nine years ago also supports the plan.

“I think it is wonderful idea,” she said. “And I think it would be better served if victims were allowed to spend time with some of the inmates. It may not help all of them, but if it helps one, I think it is worth it.”

A new Justice Department study could help prison officials plan for the changes.

The study found that of 9,691 men convicted of rape, sexual assault and child molestation and released in 1994, 43 percent were arrested for a crime within three years, compared with 68 percent of all other former inmates.

Ryan King, one of the researchers, suggested the difference might be because the most serious rapists, sexual assaulters and child molesters do not get released in the first place and are unable to commit more crimes.

“The corrections system is clearly being very cautious about who is being released from prison for sex offenses,” he said.

The study was released last year and examines how often 272,111 prisoners set free in 1994 by 15 states ended up behind bars again within three years. The study is the largest and most comprehensive look ever at prison recidivism.

The study found that those with long criminal records also were more likely to commit a sex crime after they got out of prison. The report stated 8 percent were re-arrested if they previously had committed 11 to 15 offenses.

The study examined prison releases in Maryland, Virginia, Arizona, North Carolina, California, Michigan, Ohio, Delaware, Minnesota, Oregon, Florida, New Jersey, Texas, Illinois and New York.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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