- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 18, 2003

An initiative to rehabilitate criminals instead of keeping them in prison will include paying parolees not to commit crimes, the Ehrlich administration said yesterday.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Mary Ann Saar, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional System, are “absolutely committed to putting more tools in the tool box to reduce recidivism and increase public safety, and this is one of those tools,” administration spokesman Mark Vernarelli said.

Parolees would receive $25 for each month they stay crime free. The money would come from a $50,000 grant from the Abell Foundation in Baltimore. Mr. Vernarelli said no state money would be spent.

State and foundation officials discussed the program for about six months, and the first stage will include only parolees from a West Baltimore office who have 12 months to 18 months remaining of supervised probation, as reported by the Baltimore Sun.

The office has about 4,000 parolees, but the number of eligible candidates could be in the hundreds. Officials had no exact number as of yesterday.

Rai Douglas, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3661, which represents parole and probation officers, told the Sun the plan is “ludicrous” and tantamount to bribery.

“The very fact that they’re given probation, which is a gift to begin with, should be enough for them to appreciate their freedom and to continue to try to comply with their probation,” he said.

David B. Muhlhausen, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation who specializing in crime and judicial issues, agreed.

“It sends the wrong message,” he said. “People placed on probation should be expected to follow the rules and not be paid to behave. What is going to happen when it doesn’t work? Are we going to pay them $100. … When is it going to stop?”

The 50-year-old Abell Foundation says in its mission statement that it supports nontraditional ways of solving social problems such as AIDS, hunger, homelessness, crime, child welfare, drug addiction and criminal justice.

Foundation officials did not return a phone call yesterday.

The Ehrlich administration already has vowed to move away from minimums jail times, announcing last week it would spend $2 million for 210 new staffers to help with rehabilitation.

“Our whole mission is to improve public safety,” Mr. Vernarelli said. “And the best way to improve public safety is through reducing recidivism.”

The state spends a minimum $23,000 on each of its roughly 28,000 inmates, and 97 percent of them will return to their hometowns, he said. Another 72,000 Marylanders are on parole or probation, including those arrested for drunken driving.

“Mary Ann Saar believes the lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality is not a philosophy that will work,” Mr. Vernarelli said. “We believe that for the vast majority of inmates programs like education, job training, vocational training and treatment efforts will make a difference.”

However, he acknowledged the project is indeed an experiment.

“We are exploring as many new methods as we can to reduce recidivism,” he said. “There is no guarantee that this will work.”

Mark D. Litt, a professor of behavioral sciences at the University of Connecticut Health Center who is conducting similar research, thinks the state is headed in the right direction.

“Behaviors tend to fall off,” Mr. Litt said, “but the longer you keep a person in treatment the better they do.”

Faye S. Taxman, an associate research professor at the University of Maryland and the director of the Bureau of Governmental Research, also supports the idea.

“They are not trying to bribe offenders,” she said.

“They are trying a new behavior technique, so they are getting probation officers to help shape behavior based on scientific principles. Right now they get a reward from their social peers. Most of us respond more to positive reinforcement rather than negative reinforcement.”


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