- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 20, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — The Ehrlich administration plans to spend less money on prisons and more for rehabilitation next fiscal year than during the current fiscal year.

State officials plan to spend $64.9 million on capital improvements for prisons next year, $23.2 million less than this year. They also intend to spend $9.2 million for a new rehabilitation program for nonviolent offenders. No funds were allotted for rehabilitation this year.

Overall, the administration plans to spend $650.9 million on corrections, including capital improvements, next fiscal year, which is $12.1 million less than this year.

Administration officials said the shift in spending affirms the commitment by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to rehabilitate nonviolent criminals instead of warehousing them.

“We must stop the revolving door that keeps inmates coming back into the system [instead of] returning home with the treatment services necessary to become productive members of society,” Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, said last week.

The proposed $9.2 million in the fiscal 2005 budget is for Project RESTART, a first-year program to expand treatment and rehabilitation services for nonviolent criminals in Maryland correctional facilities.

Mr. Ehrlich is hoping RESTART — or Re-entry, Enforcement and Services Targeting Addiction, Rehabilitation and Treatment — and a combination of traditional law-enforcement efforts will also help reduce the state’s 51 percent recidivism rate, which exceeds the national average.

Mr. Ehrlich became governor in 2003, and RESTART is the first time he has proposed dedicated money to rehabilitate nonviolent criminals through a specific program.

Roughly $1.2 million of the RESTART money would go toward hiring 210 staffers to help rehabilitate inmates.

Though the administration is committed to rehabilitating prisoners, officials say the $64.9 million budgeted next year for building or expanding jails and prisons is still needed.

“Unfortunately, we have 3,000 inmates with no real beds,” said Mary Ann Saar, Maryland’s secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services. “So we are still not meeting our needs.”

Among the major projects are $17.5 million for the completion of two 256-bed housing units in Cumberland, $10 million for the expansion of the Baltimore County Detention Center, $9.6 million to build a new maximum-security wing at the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital in Baltimore and $8.5 million to renovate support facilities at the Brockbridge Correctional Facility in Anne Arundel County.

Mrs. Saar also said an audit of the state’s correctional system, then under Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s administration, found at least 218 extra employees. Those employees will be used to staff new facilities or be phased out through attrition over the next three years, she said.

Mrs. Saar said the savings from eliminating those employees and Mr. Ehrlich’s money to fund RESTART will pay for 210 teachers, case managers, social workers, substance-abuse counselors and transition coordinators.

“Treatment was scattered in little bits and pieces throughout the department,” she said.

Mrs. Saar also said the department will now take a more holistic approach to rehabilitation.

“When we look at the individuals we work with, we look at all their needs,” she said.

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.

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

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 late last year. “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.”

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