- The Washington Times - Monday, May 10, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that drugs and violence are the country’s biggest problems and that his administration’s pilot program to provide drug treatment to non-violent criminals is essential to changing those conditions.

“From guns to the disintegration of the family to AIDS to sexually transmitted diseases, it is all about drugs,” Mr. Ehrlich told leaders of the National Alliance of State Drug Enforcement Agencies.

The Ehrlich administration is just days away from announcing the locations of two new treatment facilities, said Mark A. Vernarelli, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

The facilities are part of the administration’s $1.2 million Project RESTART, created to help the state’s 28,000 prisoners better prepare for life after incarceration.

Mr. Vernarelli also said yesterday that officials seem to agree that the new treatment facilities should be added to existing prisons, which would exclude Montgomery and Prince George’s counties because they have none.

“Hagerstown may be a candidate because we have three prisons there with roughly 6,800 inmates,” he said.

Mr. Vernarelli said the Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover is another option because it has about 3,000 inmates.

Still, Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, said the location of the facilities is less important than cutting the social and economic costs of warehousing criminals and reducing the state’s 51 percent recidivism rate, which exceeds the national average.

Col. Thomas E. “Tim” Hutchins, who recently became secretary of the Maryland State Police, agreed with Mr. Ehrlich.

“Baltimore city alone has a tremendous homicide rate,” he said. “Eighty percent of homicides are drug related.”

Mr. Ehrlich said some of the money earmarked for RESTART — an acronym for Re-entry, Enforcement and Services Targeting Addiction, Rehabilitation and Treatment — will pay for counselors and teachers who will help the 97 percent of state prisoners who return to their hometowns after serving their sentences.

It will also target another 70,000 Marylanders on parole or probation, including those arrested for drunken driving.

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

The shift 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, faced the expenditure of $15 million on new 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.

The Ehrlich administration has still included $64.6 million in the fiscal 2005 budget for the construction of prisons and other public safety construction, but that is a roughly $23.2 million decrease from recent state budgets. The state spends about $23,000 a year on each prisoner.

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

“I believe that every executive and every leader has the responsibility to talk about what this stuff does to you,” he said yesterday. “It is not a black-white or Republican-Democrat issue.”

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